Might community learning hubs solve our schooling crisis?

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Isn’t it amazing how simple many things appear until you really start to look into them? I remember my first time playing on a full-sized snooker table, confidently expecting to saunter round the baize dispatching the perky spheres into the hungry pockets. Maybe, just maybe, my opponent wouldn’t even get a chance to come to the table. Wouldn’t a 147 break be just lovely. How hard can it be? It didn’t quite work out this way. Our lights went out after an hour, most pockets unfed, the highest break being a score of one. Lesson learned.

Let’s look at something else that seems simple – schooling. We’ve all been to one, right? We know from our own childhoods that schools are all about learning. Our children leave home, get their daily dose and return to gleefully share how their horizons have expanded … Ok, let’s settle on, ‘they go to school to learn’.

Except schools really aren’t just about learning. In fact, sometimes very little learning takes place at all. Schools are for exploring, growing, feeding, nurturing, socialising, equalising, disciplining, encouraging, exercising, laughing, crying and almost any other -ing you can think of.

The recent partial closure of schools across the UK has brought into sharp focus their role as ‘providers of childcare’. How can our hallowed economy return to ‘normal’ if parents/carers can’t return to work? Predictably, most mainstream media, and the diverse business interests they represent, are baying for the reopening of schools ‘no ifs, no buts’.

There’s one tiny little problem. A problem so small it can’t even be seen. You can’t blag a virus. It isn’t even listening. It won’t go and sit on the naughty step and change its attitude. Lies and spin and carefully honed media strategies won’t defeat this foe. It’ll do its own microscopic thing, in its own microscopic way, as and when it wants. And we’re only just beginning to work out the very basics of what it does want.

Pandemics have challenged humanity before. Many times. Aside from the not so great death and misery, they do tend to have an upside. They tend to lead to leaps of innovation in the most unexpected ways. For example, the Black Death is widely credited with securing higher wages for fourteenth century workers, though this is also disputed.

Without getting into all the emerging science and arguments about what may or may not happen let’s just imagine, for now, that it becomes apparent that schools can only open safely at, let’s say, 30 percent of pre-covid levels. A class of 30 now becomes a class of ten. Where would we go from here? How should we be designing our after-covid schooling so it is better than our pre-covid schooling?

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Arguably, the most vulnerable children should be prioritised for attending school. Children from families on the brink. Families who struggle to feed, clothe and nurture their children for complex, difficult, all-too-human reasons. Perhaps success measures would shift away from league tables, contextual value added and progress 8 scores, to more rounded indices about wellbeing and health. This might prove to be a truly effective intervention to close the profound and growing inequality gap in this country. I wonder how much this investment would save the public purse in the long-run? This targeted intervention might even prove to be cost neutral as those involved become healthier and more economically productive.

For the children not attending school, maybe it’s time to explore the formation of community learning hubs. Hubs that truly celebrate the joy of learning and shared discovery, and have the time to explore and develop the passions of the individuals involved. Alongside tuition from formally qualified teachers, there could be input from community members: local councillors, artisans, car mechanics, shopkeepers and hairdressers.

Each hub could have an outreach support worker from the local school – someone to help with paperwork, safeguarding and all the other important bits and pieces. Continuous assessment would take place (as it does in most workplaces) rather than terminal exams that, sadly, seem to be the raison d’être of modern schooling. We already know children develop at different rates and one size doesn’t fit all – perhaps it’s time to ditch fixed assessment points at 16 and 18. Instead, students could sit their qualifications when ready, within a life-long learning model.

Understandably, people might ask how the children would learn and socialise within this model. Let’s explore a greater focus on teaching children how to learn, not just what to learn. A blend of technology facilitated online learning and face-to-face hub learning would cover most bases. Meaningful lessons can easily be delivered via online tutorial groups or webinars. Community learning hubs could plan safe interactions and activities in a way schools would find overwhelming.

We’d also need to address the issue of how parents/carers could afford to be at home. So, perhaps it’s time to properly explore a universal basic income as part of the solution. If schooling really is as important as we say it is (and it is), let’s pull together; we can find a solution.

Maybe this sounds radical, perhaps even impossible. The thing is, it really isn’t. A lot of this is already happening. As an ex-teacher (secondary science for 7 years) I started making this transition about three years ago. I swapped classroom teaching and long 12-hour days for a ‘different’ life involving, amongst other things, private tuition. The tuition grew and grew and I was soon welcomed into some inspiring local home education groups. Before long, I had established regular face-to-face sessions with a mixed group of students all wanting to learn science. Together we’ve explored biology, chemistry and physics, organised a star-gazing astronomy night, a forensic science day and even a science-themed game of Dungeons and Dragons.

After lockdown in March, I moved all the tutoring online. It was difficult at first and much more tiring; I didn’t think it would work, but with adjustments, it did. I’ve now taken things a step further and, working with an ex-colleague, developed a social enterprise to help parents/carers educating at home. This offers live, online lessons for children aged 10+ and advice and support for parents educating at home. We hope, in our own small way, we can bring some relief to parents/carers unable or unwilling to send their children back to school.

By my reckoning there is about as much chance of me beating Ronnie O’Sullivan’s fastest ever 147 break (5 minutes 8 seconds if you’re interested!) as there is of finding a simple, easy solution to our schooling crisis. Nurturing the next generation should be at the heart of what a community exists to do. It’s time to ignore the shriekers, the wishful thinkers and the truth twisters and have a proper grown-up conversation about how we can safely educate our children – all our futures depend on it.

Andy Milson (BSc, PGCE) is founder of TutorLedLearning.com which offers live, interactive, online lessons for students aged 10+ and advice and support for parents/carers educating at home.