A lot can change in 100 blog posts

Photo by Roven Images on Unsplash

As we reach our 100th post, we reflect on a turn of events that we could never have anticipated and how we have all adapted to the changing circumstances.

When we published our first blog post back in November 2019 shortly after the first Olevi International Conference, the thought of getting this far couldn’t have been further from our minds.

The nerve centre of our blog.  George Berwick and editor Graham Hutson discuss content in their weekly editorial meeting at their local cafe, the Birdwood.

Neither could we have begun to anticipate the extraordinary turn of events that would take place within the next six months that would see much of the developed world in lockdown, including all the countries we report upon.  Their schools closed to all but the most vulnerable students and the provision they provide replaced by homeschooling.  

As I write, much of the turmoil of the past year is behind us. We are able once more to go about our daily lives with a degree of normality, even if the threat of a resurgence of Covid-19 remains ever present. Most importantly, our schools are open and education is returning to pre-pandemic routines. For some, however, restrictions still apply.

When we set up the blog, the idea was to share our knowledge of school improvement derived from an effective knowledge-managed approach.  This approach has emerged over the past 30 years. It can be seen in the work of the schools involved in the development of London Challenge, Teaching Schools, Olevi, Challenge Partners and the Western Quebec School Board.  It has become encapsulated in a theory of action which uses concepts and models to help shape the actions of teachers and school leaders.  We have been supported in our endeavours by the efforts of many contributors, including a core team of Dame Sue John, Richard Lockyer and Rita Bugler in England and Mike Dubeau and Ruth Ahern in Canada. 

I had previously published three books on the subject and with others such as the late Peter Mathews published a number of pamphlets and articles on our work around school improvement, but a large amount of knowledge remained unpublished.  The purpose of this blog was to fill the gaps. 

On reflection, to a large extent we have achieved this, with a series of posts on topics including:

In addition we have reported upon developments in the collaborative learning communities we worked with across the globe and profiled the work of a number of the distinguished colleagues we have collaborated with.

However, none of us could have anticipated the dramatic change in circumstances which emerged as the deadly COVID-19 virus spread rapidly across our increasingly well-connected world. In order to chronicle these unprecedented events our global reports became longer, more detailed and frequent. To ensure they were contextualised we found ourselves presenting a national and local picture. 

The unfolding story told by our correspondents was illustrated with invaluable personal accounts. We are indebted to our regular correspondents, Mike Dubeau in Quebec, Canada, the Fords in Dubai, Dame Sue John, Richard Lockyer and the Conlons in England, Lesley Stagg and more recently Jenny Posner in Jersey, Mats Rosenkvist in Sweden and Simon Thompson in Wales. Their contributions have proved invaluable.

For those of us who had been in school in the 1950s and 1960s and have worked in education ever since this has been a time like no other. For a system which has often encouraged and then tolerated diversity in the way it operates, for example:

… conformity suddenly became the by-word.  

In addition, in the past major changes to the system were flagged years in advance and then took even longer to implement.  This was due to the political framework that schools operated in. One in which power to make decisions varied by degree from the classroom teacher to the Minister of Education.  The successful ones normally had followed a structured approach. With first of all a pilot then an evaluation, then a larger pilot, followed by a policy to gain political approval and then a phased rollout. For example Teaching Schools took fifteen years to establish themselves in England. 

All this changed as the speed at which the virus spread limited the window in which decisions could be made and put them in the hands of the Government. What would have taken months to decide suddenly needed to be settled in days and the evidence used moved from facts to projections based on hypotheses.  The stakes were high for our school communities, lives were at risk. Conformity was therefore mandatory and rigorously monitored, such as in Dubai. With the exception of Sweden, where recommendations were issued in place of demands for compliance. With the risks such as they were, it was reassuring to see many of the decisions were still made collaboratively.  Nonetheless, the stress this placed on all involved to “get it right” was unprecedented and its long-term effect on all should not be under-estimated.

The major impact on our students even in Sweden has been a shift from school based to home-based schooling.  As a result, within schools their core business has shifted from face-to-face teaching and learning to health and safety and providing remote learning.  The leadership of schools has responded to this by being predominantly throughout the crisis in system rather than systemic mode

This dramatic change in the environment in which children learn has harshly exposed the inequalities of a child’s home background. To mitigate this, schools have scrambled to provide many students with the equipment and support their often underprivileged parents could not provide at home.  In England, led by Marcus Rashford, the England and Manchester United footballer, the provision of free school meals for underprivileged families became a symbol of the fight for equality

The emerging early evidence suggests that as a result of this dramatic shift in the location of schooling, the hard earned gains in closing the attainment gap between students from different backgrounds, which so many of our colleagues have dedicated their careers to achieving, have been set back at least ten years in England, with similar disparities expected elsewhere.  It has also highlighted the role schools play in society and how they operate now and in the future. A debate that we have engaged in and will continue to do so. 

Over the last two terms, as an increasing proportion of the population became vaccinated, attempts were made to return all students to their classrooms. This was met with a warm welcome by all involved. However, due to the continuing spread of the virus, a significant number of students and teachers were required to self-isolate.  So the long summer holidays came as a welcome relief.  Though as we recently reported, taking advantage of this down time for some staff resulted in their own dramas. 

Now, as another school year is in progress and fortunately the death rates are abating, more than 80 per cent of the adult population is vaccinated and plans to vaccinate secondary aged pupils are being mooted, some form of return to normality is being predicted.  However, with few families remaining unscathed by the pandemic and with winter approaching and with it the arrival of the flu season, the potential for disruption remains high. 

There is no doubt that dealing with the longer lasting impact of these enforced changes on student learning and wellbeing will be at the forefront of our teachers’ endeavor.  With the wellbeing of staff a major concern for our school leaders. All of which may not be fully revealed until some time in the future. What this means in reality on a day to day basis is hard to predict. For example, how far will governments go to relinquish their new found authority back to school teachers and leaders. 

As a result, over the next months we will continue to share our colleagues’ experiences, be it using drive-through graduation ceremonies to celebrate the end of year or establishing virtual schools.  Together we can learn collaboratively how we might best deal with the negative impact the virus might still have on our students’ learning and how we are to redress the imbalance to their education caused by the events of the past eighteen months.  

So, with the current situation to report on and still a significant part of our knowledge to impart, we are sure that like you we still have plenty to do.  Thanks once again to all of our correspondents for their contributors and to you for taking the time to read our posts.

Take care and stay safe

George