There has been much debate about the best time to reopen schools to all pupils. There remains a difference of opinion between MPs when weighing-up the issues of public health, mental health, educational progress and overall pupil welfare. Everyone is at least united in the belief that school is, ultimately, where all children should be.
When I hear these debates played out in the media, I see the shadow of a dichotomy that has haunted education in this country in recent years. Bluntly, the ‘traditionalist’ view that school is for the accumulation and testing of knowledge, versus the ‘progressive’ view that the experience should be designed around the individual and their proclivities and needs. I simplify, of course, in the interests of brevity, but it is with these twin imperatives in mind that I think about what we will do – and how we will do it – when our schools can function fully once again.
We must avoid thinking about lockdown simply as time lost in which children could, and should, have been getting up to speed for tests and entrance exams. This is not to say we consider learning as unimportant – far from it, in fact. Rather, we find ourselves right now needing to prioritise the wellbeing of the young people in our care. There are growing fears concerning the impact of lockdown on the mental health and wellbeing of children and young people with increased levels of distress, worry and anxiety, combined with feelings of loneliness.
We would do well however to remember that before this pandemic the mental health of children and young people was already a grave concern in this country. Several high profile reports and publications put child mental health in the spotlight, with the incumbent pressures which come from examinations and testing at so many stages of a child's development. We should therefore be very careful before we uncritically prescribe schools as the balm that will soothe away the pain of lockdown in young people. I would say that rather depends on what we do and how we do it.
To extent we must, and will, make it up as we go along. At my own school, we are of the view that coming back will be harder for the children than the last time. We must pay attention to them, and get a sense of how they are – how they see the world, and themselves. They may well have spent a lot of time looking at screens indoors – itself associated with issues of wellbeing in normal times – and will need to get used to being with their peers once more. Considerations need to be made in a number of areas but two standout for us: the reconnection with their peers in tutor groups, classes and boarding houses, but also rebuilding in person relationships with teachers, which are a cornerstone of life at my school.
I believe it's vital to spend as much time outdoors with the children as we possibly can once schools return. The benefits of outdoor learning are myriad and what better way to adjust back to school life than to fully embrace all the benefits which come with being in the open air. We are lucky to be part of the South Downs with great beaches nearby, and it is in these spots that we plan to be together – talking, and slowly getting used to being with each other again. There will be learning too – a carefully-planned cross-curricular programme that hides its light in a bushel of fun.
Every child will be in a different emotional boat, and our first and most important job is to figure out where they are and help them get them back to land. And we are mindful that the wellbeing of parents and staff is important too. The school is there for all of us, and we will be doing what we can for everybody. If the gods smile upon us our annual spring camping trip will go ahead as planned, and if not we will improvise and salvage as much of it as we can on the school grounds. Whatever transpires, schools need to bring everybody together – and keep doing it.
We are also looking for opportunities for children to be at school during the summer holidays. Our Outdoor Work programme might see children growing vegetables, or caring for lambs, or any number of other practical activities. Though rare now, learning of this kind has a long and important history in education. As long ago as 1904, government regulations for elementary schools stressed the value of practical work as part of a wider emphasis on educating the ‘total being’ rather than simply imparting knowledge. A quarter of a century later, the 1931 Hadow Report proposed that the primary school curriculum be thought of in terms of ‘activity and experience’. Thus, what is now understood by some to be a woolly 1960s permissive educational orthodoxy – that of learning at one’s own pace through discovery rather than the mechanical transmission of facts through instruction – was welcomed by policy makers half a century earlier.
The past year has taught us that the prevailing educational orthodoxies – of didactic teaching through ‘chalk and talk’ of approved ‘knowledge’ – is easily derailed, and of limited relevance right now. I hope that some policy makers have the good sense and humility to acknowledge that the ‘progressive’ and ‘child-centred’ approaches to education they have worked so hard to discredit are vital right now, and might just have been what was needed all along.