The new normal for our schools is likely to be very different to what’s gone before

Photo by Charisse Kenion on Unsplash

Schools across Europe are getting ready to open in the next few weeks. But what are we doing here in the UK?

The UK government maintains it has ‘followed the science’ throughout the pandemic and will continue to do so as life returns to normal and the economy is rebooted. With lockdown measures seemingly easing, there is much discussion about reopening schools and nurseries.

While school closures have been an essential part of the initial contagion control, home education and distance learning have proved difficult for many parents. But opening schools is a cornerstone of returning to normality. The question in many people’s minds is whether school closures will be a one-off blip in the 2019/2020 academic year, or whether they become a regular feature of our strategy to control this deadly virus.

The answer to this has wide implications for the future of education in this country.

Many of our schools are old and were not built for the numbers they cater for today. Classrooms often accommodate one pupil per one square metre: up to 32 children in rooms that were designed for no more than 24. Pupils are also physically bigger than their forebears were. Children sit shoulder to shoulder at their desks; add in bags and wet coats and you begin to get a picture of what a class can look like. If the teacher is fortunate enough to have a teaching assistant then there are two adults working in that crowded workplace. Corridors are also crowded, with many patrolled by staff to ensure that the human traffic keeps moving. Secondary schools are busy places.

Primary schools present additional challenges, as Pam Jarvis explains in her article Dilemma for early years practitioners when schools reopen’. With younger children there are different considerations to weigh up, including extra difficulties with physical distancing and with personal care.

With all these issues, it is unsurprising that fewer than one in five of us think the time is right to consider reopening schools. The vast majority of us appear to want lockdown to continue for a while longer. Given the density of people in most schools, there is an understandable fear that schools could become reservoirs for Covid-19, with children the vectors of transmission within schools and out into the wider community.

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Presently we have two issues that we need to address, the immediate future and the longer term.

Firstly, bearing in mind the current school stock, how do we resume our education provision and safely get as many pupils as possible back to school? Our current model – every child at school, every day, up to the age of eighteen – may not be fit for purpose alongside physical distancing measures and sporadic lockdowns. Parents and staff with other caring responsibilities need to know that schools will be safe spaces for their children in terms of Covid-19, but this can’t be assured. Authorities need to consider how they will manage testing, contact tracing and isolation procedures for symptomatic pupils and staff. It is likely that large gaps on the school register will quickly develop.

One immediate solution may be to bring back year groups on a part-time basis. Splitting secondary schools by key stage on a week-on, week-off basis would enable teachers to main contact with their pupils and allow our young people to keep in touch with their peers, with knock-on benefits for their mental health. This could also assist with physical distancing. But it would create a new challenge for families having to reorganise their working lives.

The long-term challenge posed by Covid-19 is more complex and may require a radical rethink about how we educate our young people. If we accept this part-time model, we must make sure pupils can continue to access the recommended educational materials, regardless of socio-economic background. Having a resource bank of differentiated education materials (written and produced by the best writers), along with a laptop scheme for all pupils and free broadband, should become national education priorities.

If we continue with the current testing and examination regimes next year, the state should consider establishing a free national tutoring service, to offer all pupils a personal online tutor for English, maths and science. This would address some of the educational shortfall of part-time schooling and would test the government’s commitment to ‘levelling up’. The BBC is in the unique position of being able to turn the Bitesize educational platform into the necessary national platform and schools throughout the country have already established the beginnings of a national learning web. We now need to build on this and ensure it is high quality and available to all.

The presence of a deadly infectious virus in the population takes us into a new education landscape. The Government may require an orchard of money trees to redesign education in the 2020s.