Building confidence is a question of capitals
The Government is working hard to reassure us that schools have been made safe for lessons to restart, but the pressure on our school leaders is unprecedented.
Schools are drawing on the moral capital they have built up within their community to convince their students to return to school, but the effective management of their resources when they get there will be determined by their organisational capital.
In England you can tell that the situation of convincing parents and carers to send their students back into schools is serious because on June 25th the Department for Education took out an advert in The Times to reassure all concerned that the partial return to school is safe. As with the approach adopted by the UK Government throughout their pandemic communications, the information was provided by an expert, in this case Dr Sam Wass, an experimental psychologist at the University of East London who specialises in child development. He is quoted emphasising the important role schools play in developing social interaction as well as learning for exams. He values the school environment because it is where students interact with their peers and in doing so learn to compete between equals, make their case and stand up for themselves. At home, in contrast, the situation is often one-sided with the parent at the fore. The development of these skills and attributes he considers essential for student wellbeing. We would add to this the need to establish routines and learning habits in a safe environment.
He also counsels parents not to put too much pressure on their children to account for their school experience when they get home because their experience will have been taxing. We can corroborate this finding with our own experience of a teenager we know well, who upon arriving home after their first day back was barely able to eat before retiring to bed, leaving their parents waiting until the morning for answers to their concerned questions. As we all know, this is not the best time to interrogate them.
The advert also addresses concerns over the correct social distancing and hygiene procedures and how easily students and their schools have adapted to them. This helps to illustrate that the two main capitals in play at the moment for schools are moral and organisational. We know from our theory of action that moral capital is the glue that binds us together but it is our organisational capital that determines our capacity to use our resources to support the action. Moral capital is being drawn on when schools ask parents, carers and students to return to school, organisational capital is being drawn upon when they manage the demands of the new learning conditions.
Over the years, many education presenters have chosen to illustrate how entrenched our organisational capital is by showing images of 19th century classrooms and comparing them with the very similar learning environment we provide for our students today. This image also pervades the media, whose de facto point of reference for schooling is a classroom. For all the home schooling, it is the classroom that is being adapted to meet the new health requirements. These demands place particular pressure on secondary timetablers.
To understand what is entailed, we have drawn on the experience of Alan Rawcliffe, a colleague with expertise in this area. He said that as a result of the pandemic he has provided schools with a far wider range of options than usual. These cover a number of staffing scenarios as well as the usage of classrooms and other large spaces, temporary or permanent, within and outside of the school. The factors identified for staff reflected the increase in the number of those now considered vulnerable and the potential the school had to appoint new staff when their movement was highly restricted. For classrooms the issue was complying with the two-metre rule, reducing capacity to under 30 per cent and the viability of using other spaces within and outside of the school. In addition the organisation of staff and student bubbles and the amount of movement and phasing of them also played a part. All these factors then placed restrictions on the scope of the curriculum that could be provided and to whom, when and where.
While Alan felt it possible to second-guess the likely conditions in September, nothing could be relied upon in such a fluid situation. He had also found the essential consultative approach more onerous through social media than his preferred option of “thrashing things out across a table in the school”. This was particularly apparent when he had to rely solely on email to get a handle on the requirements of one head of department. With the continuing uncertainty, he thought it unlikely that the final draft would be reached until the end of the summer holiday. This was in stark contrast to normality when some schools would already be using next year’s timetable and each of his clients would expect to have at least an agreed version by now.
As we all know, classrooms and class sizes, the amount of time students and staff should be in school and numerous other factors must be considered when effectively managing schools. As a result of our experience of home schooling, it will be interesting to see if our ancient model of a classroom with its relatively rigid contact ratio and dominant position of the teacher as well as our agrarian-based school year remain unaltered. The problem is that changing either because of cost, status and childcare arrangements will not be without its travails. However, as we have said before, “where there is a will there’s a way” or to put it into the context of our theory of action, where there is the emerging evidence that an approach increase the life chances of our students, we will mobilise our organisational capital to change the way we manage our resources around here.
Finally, if for whatever reason you are grappling with a difficult problem as a result of the unprecedented situation you find yourself in at the moment, we hope you can soon resolve it to your satisfaction or at least reconcile yourself to the outcome and if you are heading towards the closure of your school after an extremely taxing period, take care and stay safe.