Bursting the education bubble

Moh tch / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)
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Alongside the rest of the world, the English education sector is now beginning to consider how it will move out of pandemic lockdown and into a new, tentative phase of normality. The tiger has been chased off into the jungle, but it is still lurking there, and may return at any time.

The feeling of dread that this engenders and the associated feelings of anxiety have been articulated by young bloggers on the YoungMinds website. The whole world has experienced a situation that has created a general feeling of insecurity. Young people feel this intently, because their futures are less established than those of their parents and grandparents, and much of the prediction about what we may expect over the next decade is anxiety provoking.

Initial research in nations severely affected by the pandemic show a significant rise in insomnia and anxiety amongst adults. Reports also suggest an increase in isolation and anxiety amongst young people, particularly those from socio-economically deprived homes. On the other hand, some parents are reporting that their children have actually experienced freedom from school as a chance to explore broader horizons and engage in more creative pursuits. All of this indicates that the experience of lockdown has been very different for different families. Schools will need to take a sensitive, individualised approach to integrating children back into the customary everyday round of home and school.

Reports that the Department for Education will view dealing with issues arising from the covid experience principally as ‘behaviour problems’ are therefore worrying, particularly when it is considered that some children will have also experienced family situations involving serious illness and death. This has disproportionately affected socio-economically deprived and BAME families (black Asian and minority ethnic). It is clear that schools will need to take account of these factors as they move forward.

On 26 June the secretary of state for education laid the blame for the shambles of the government’s school-opening plans at the door of the nation’s teachers. In the nation’s most popular tabloid, the Daily Mail, he branded England’s biggest teaching union, the National Education Union, as the ‘Non Education Union’. He made no mention of the fact that the government had made the initial error, by trying to initiate the back to school process by bringing the youngest children in first. This is the age group who would find it the most difficult to cope with social distancing and who regularly present staff with issues that require dealing with body fluids, hence raising a complex PPE issue.

Williamson has now announced his plans to bring all children back to school in September, emphasising that what he wishes to see is a situation in which all children are taught sitting in desks facing the front. He points out that for this plan to work, children will need to be organised into ‘bubbles’ of thirty in primary schools and over two hundred for full year groups in secondary schools.

The emergency advisory group for learning and education (EAGLE) – that works with the independent Sage group – has studied the government’s proposals carefully and published a report saying, “We don’t believe their recommendations are safe”. Likewise, Twitter did not take long to find a fatal flaw in this latest government recommendation:

It would be useful to address this issue before head teachers are tasked with working out how to get five bubbles of 200+ children through a lunch sitting, as another tweeter pointed out. But no further advice has been issued.

Williamson has also recently allocated £4m to Oak Academies to produce online lessons. But these have already attracted criticism for being largely ‘talking head’ presentations and thus lacking in differentiation. Initial statistical information additionally suggests poor lesson completion rates. The national teacher’s opinion poll, Teacher Tapp, recently showed only a small number of schools (16 per cent) using Oak for online teaching, with the majority using other available apps, streamed content and educational resources, including in-house learning and BBC Bitesize.

More worrying are the issues that have been raised with the accuracy of the content itself. For example, the use of tick box quizzes in subjects where the actual answer to a question is not well served by a true/false concept. Who would you say was the earliest ruler of England, for example? GCSE BBC Bitesize history explains that, “Athelstan was Alfred the Great’s grandson. He reigned between AD925 and AD939 and was the very first King of all England”. But students studying this topic on the Oak site were asked to complete the following quiz question:

As with other contracts issued by the government during this crisis, it seems that the company did not have to tender for the funding, being under some kind of emergency response protection about which questions continue to be asked.

An alternative approach to teaching and learning while still under the shadow of Covid-19 would be to suspend statutory assessments and pursue a project-based model of teaching for children under 14 who are not yet subject to the restrictions of the current GCSE and A level syllabus. A project-led curriculum would be far more robust should schools need to close either locally or nationally over the 2020/21 school year in response to a second wave lockdown. Children’s work would be more flexible and a topic could be continued at home with parental support, should part-time attendance or complete lockdown become a necessity at any time in the school year

It would also have the following additional benefits:

  • It would give schools the flexibility to create smaller ‘bubbles’, given that the children’s work could be facilitated by teaching assistants. This could also have the added benefit of bringing adults into work who have been laid off; for example, actors, chefs and artists may be particularly helpful in sharing their specialist skills to develop project work.
  • It would give children more flexibility to pursue local topics, particularly in the outdoor environment.
  • Online lessons facilitating project work rather than drip-feeding ‘facts’ could also be more engaging, of shorter duration and with videos and activities. Examples of such learning could be converted from materials from institutions highly experienced in online and distance learning, such as The Open University.

Such measures would give parents and children confidence that whatever happens with respect to the pandemic over the next year, children’s education would be future-proofed, with robust contingencies in place for lockdown. It would also contribute to anxiety reduction at this very stressful time, positively impacting on the mental health of both children and parents.

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