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  • Judith Skiming

Back to school? - A teacher’s point of view

“Education education education.” This used to be the mantra of a past Labour government. Many may not have realised it at the time but compared to the current government’s approach to education those were surely halcyon days?

In contrast, we now have “Inequality, inconsistency, incompetence”. These appear to me the three guiding principles to describe the government’s current handling of the coronavirus pandemic and their approach to education.

Inequality of both opportunity and outcome was already evident in pre-pandemic Britain after 10 years of cuts to school budgets which hit schools in the poorest areas of the country the hardest. School closures and the lack of access to support at home and online learning resources for disadvantaged children have meant that inequality is now being hard-baked into the system.

Depressingly this trend is continuing even now when most pupils are back at school. It is difficult to tell whether this due to the government’s lack of understanding of how most state schools operate or due to a lack of care? Either way the lack of planning and government support that went into ‘getting schools back’ will again disproportionately negatively impact poorer students and state school students in general.

For example breakfast clubs - which normally ensure disadvantaged pupils have had something to eat before the start of the school day - have had to be cancelled in many secondary schools because of the constraints of the government guidance that year groups must be kept in ‘bubbles’. This means that a school canteen cannot serve a mixture of students from different year groups at the same time. Many disadvantaged students may now have to wait until morning break time until they can receive their free breakfast. Being hungry in the first lessons of the day is bound to reduce concentration level and achievement long-term.

The ‘bubble’ system in most state secondary schools is being made to work by having year groups confined within specific areas of the school with the teachers moving around. Given that most state schools do not have surplus classroom facilities, this means that all rooms - including laboratories and other specialist rooms for computing or technology - are needed to accommodate all the ‘bubbles’. What this means is that only one year group may be allocated to be based in the science labs or the design technology block. Hence, only one year group will be able to partake in practical science or technology lessons in the forthcoming academic year. This has received scant attention in the press, but will surely become more of an issue as the year goes on.

Now, with creative timetabling and fortunate school building geography in some cases there may be exceptions to this with opportunities to allow small numbers of pupils from different ‘bubbles’ access to these specialist rooms on a rotational basis. However, given the need for extra cleaning and general timetabling complexities - this is likely to be limited. Therefore many secondary state school pupils will have reduced access to hands-on practical lessons for the foreseeable future.

This will have obvious implications for future science & technology educational outcomes. It means state schools with limited facilities are at an immediate disadvantage in teaching the reformed Govian science curriculum (2016) that had a big shift in emphasis in carrying out and understanding practical science. It is hard to see how a child who has never actually physically conducted a certain science experiment will be able to articulate themselves as well in a written exam as a child who has actually had the benefit of doing practical work themselves. The only option now for science teachers in this position is to show videos of experiments. Indeed this situation has been tacitly acknowledged by OFQUAL in that the only proposed concessions for the GCSE science exam series in 2021 will be that students no longer need to carry out the ‘required’ practical activities. Instead they ‘permit observation of demonstrations/simulations to cover required apparatus and techniques’.

So what should have been done? These problems would have been solved if the government had invested in a ‘Nightingale’ schools programme, just as they did for the NHS. Keir Starmer was calling for a schools task force to work on such a plan back in June. Indeed throughout the summer Keir recognised the importance of using that time to engage seriously with Head Teachers and teaching unions in order to look at ways of increasing the capacity of schools to reopen safely and ensure a good standard of education for all on their return. Extra classrooms would have meant that secondary school laboratories and specialist rooms could have been kept free and then used in turn by all year group ‘bubbles’ in a fair & equitable way. Instead we were told later in the summer by Boris Johnson that there was a “moral duty” to get all children back to school in September. This ‘moral duty’ did not appear to involve the government supporting schools with much concrete financial help or help to expand their premises. It took a campaign by a premier league footballer to make this same government U-turn and recognise that it had a ‘moral duty’ to feed 1.3 million children over the summer by extending the free school meals programme.

Inconsistency and incompetence have been the main qualities on display during the exam grading fiasco. The computer model that was responsible for downgrading around 40% of A level students results in England was initially lauded by Gavin Williamson the Education secretary as a necessary mechanism to avoid the evils of ‘grade inflation’.

On the day that the grades were published Boris Johnson said that they were “robust & dependable”. Indeed initial analysis of the grades awarded using the algorithm showed that private schools had increased the proportion of students achieving the top grades at a much faster rate than comprehensive schools. The year-on-year increase for independent schools was 4.7% while comprehensive schools saw a rise of just 2%.

The Education Secretary declared there were to be definitely no U turns on this matter, until, inevitably, there was. The U-turn to give students the ‘Centre Assessed Grades’ based on their teachers' projections came four days after the A level results day. In that time many students had already missed out on places at university or accepted their second place offer. Much unnecessary stress and uncertainty had been caused to both students and their teachers. According to the Prime Minister the algorithm had now become ‘mutant’.

After the debacle of the 2020 summer exam series, teachers and students are now wondering what are the plans for the summer 2021 series. In the science subjects the only concession is that students can do less practical work in person, but they still need to know about all the possible practical techniques and all the content examined remains the same. The question remains whether the government will delay the start of the 2021 exams - a question which at the moment they are refusing to answer. Schools and exam boards need to know sooner rather than later due to the amount of planning that surrounds any exam series. Students would benefit psychologically from knowing that they have been given a few extra weeks of teaching time to make up for the many weeks lost over lockdown.

What we need is some leadership, humanity and competent decision making. Instead, what we get is incompetence, inconsistency and inequality.

“Integrity, authority, unity.” This was a campaign slogan used by Keir Starmer during the Labour Leadership campaign. We could definitely use some of this in managing education and the wider coronavirus pandemic.

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20 apr

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