We’re already asking a lot of our schools; new catch-up measures will only work if they can drop other responsibilities
A car engine can run hotter than it should for a while – but it will meet a point of no return and cannot be restarted without serious repair.
Our schools are now a massive, overheated engine, and the most pressing question is not “what more can schools do” to solve the problems of Covid, but instead, “what can they stop doing?”
A year ago headteachers were in charge of running schools. That was a hard enough job. Now, they are trying to run in-school childcare hubs, virtual lesson platforms, contact tracing, a food home delivery network, a technology library, and oversee a mass testing centre.
Our daily surveys of around 8,500 teachers on Teacher Tapp (the free app I run to help teachers with their continuing professional development) shows that, pre-pandemic, only around 10% of heads experienced very high levels of work-related anxiety. By the start of January it was running at over 50%. This isn’t sustainable.
Meanwhile, teachers are scrambling to keep children up to speed – with some struggling more than others. Fee-paying schools barely missed a beat in the first lockdown, with 81% of teachers able to deliver all, or almost all, of their curriculum as expected. In the most deprived state school areas, the equivalent figure was just 15%.
The autumn term was also a schooling lottery. Children in the north-west were much more likely to have spent at least two weeks at home in isolation due to contact tracing than children in the south-west. One headteacher had his entire GCSE year group out three times. By the time those children are back in March they will have experienced just six weeks of face-to-face school over the past 12 months.
Given the scale of these problems, it is normal to grope for big solutions. A national catch-up effort is undoubtedly needed, and the government’s National Tutoring Programme is a good start. Extending it for multiple years will help, but it needs to be easier for schools to use online providers – a major hurdle so far. Funding to allow pupils to repeat exam years or attend refresher summer schools would help too.
But, when an engine is overheating, putting your foot down to get back on schedule will just make the engine hotter. If catch-up is to be the number one priority, and it should be, then schools can’t do that along with 53 other new responsibilities. Or, even, all the things they used to do before. Catch-up will only work if we can figure out what else can be stopped to enable everyone to focus.
A few obvious ideas stand out. First, while I’m typically a defender of Ofsted, asking schools to meet a set of criteria written for an entirely different time is pointless right now. Better to point their expertise towards the under-reported social care and prison sector, where there are some truly worrying cases.
Second, given the unequal disruption to children’s education, there’s little point bouncing back to a high-stakes GCSE and SATs testing regimes. Using in-school assessments, as primary schools are doing to check on learning, and switching to a lower-stakes online testing regime for 16-year-olds, as recommended by think-tank EDSK, would not only reduce the cost of examinations, giving a welcome boost to budgets, but also give back teaching time.
No one in government ever wants to promise to do less in schools. No one ever wants to delay a journey so their car can cool down. But if we want to get to our destination of ensuring every child is back on track, something has to give. The big question is, what will it be?