Future Schools?

A number of people have made some very silly comments this week, Adonis and Willshaw being the main offenders. Adonis’ comment particularly made me think that there are many people who expect everything to “get back to normal”. Wilshaw’s expressed a reluctance to change anything about the curriculum or examination system, but put the burden on schools instead. My friend was evacuated from China in March and is currently enjoying a British lockdown. He said we should cacth up after lockdown is over, when we get back to normal; many other people saying they want to just get back to school/work. This makes me wonder whether we will ever get ‘back to normal’?

This is not the first Pandemic in recorded history. Black Death is probably the most famous and Spanish Flu the most glamourous (It’s from Spain, except not actually). But we have indications that rather than being spaced hundreds of years apart, they may become much closer together. Air travel, and especially low cost air travel (I am by no means blaming Easy Jet for this btw)  has made international travel far easier. The global economy and huge import and export volumes has made it easier for virus carrying vectors to travel. Even finding exotic spiders below a bridge in the Thames is not unheard of; and then there are stories of tarantualas being carried to the UK in backpacks. All of these events highlight the ease with which unwanted travellers can accompany us, and that includes pathogens (disease causing viruses, bacteria and other microorganisms.)


What does the future hold for schools?

It is clear that the response from the governement has been shaky at best (I am trying to be diplomatic here).  Guidance from the DfE for work set is that there is no expectation on schools for what they provide, which has then lead to Adonis saying a silly thing, Wilshaw saying a silly thing and a journalist saying a silly thing and getting told to delete it. It is clear that we need some form of guidance from those who run education. As this is not forthcoming, here is a great post I read by Matthew Evans: https://educontrarianblog.com/2020/05/01/what-have-we-learnt-from-18-days-of-suck-it-and-see-schooling/

People are crying out to know what will come of schools in the future, when will they return? How will that return work? Will we be able to perform social distancing measures? I have thought of several possible measure that could be taken, but actually if we are to live under the threat of increased levels of pandemic (SARS and MERS and Swine Flu are recent examples of international viral spread, if not pandemics themselves) wouldn’t it be prudent to change what we do in schools to mitigate that risk in the future? We will obviously need to increase cleaning staff and having staggered lessons and breaks to maintain distancing will be difficult.

I have a few thoughts here, but my hope is that the three people who read this will go away and think of some wildly innovative ideas and solve the problem themselves. I will also add the following caveats: I am a Secondary teacher, so I am primarily thinking about the students I teach and the enviroment and constraints therein. I cannot think clearly about Primary Schools and am well aware that most of what I am about to say will not work in those locations (sorry!). The following is also crammed with conjecture, but I just a way of crystalising my own thoughts on the subject. It may be a load of c***!

Here are some ideas for how schools could return or change:

1. Go Back to Normal

There are obvious issues with this. We cannot do this now, Denmark has just seen an increase in its R value (the rate at which the virus is spread from person to person- if R=1, then Covid is passed from one person to one other person on average) from 0.6 to 0.9. Putting to bed any ideas that reopening schools has minimal effect on virus transmission. There have also been instances, rare ones albeit, of Kawasaki Syndrome in young people with the virus. Statistically this may be very low, but that is not much comfort for the individual struck with it. I have worked in Eight schools in my 14 year career, and the schools in London which I taught at contain 1500 to 1800 students in a tiny footprint, buildings designed for students to get from one end to the other in under 5 minutes with narrow corridors. These are not fit for social distancing in. So how could we achieve this?

2. Part Time Return

There are many ways this can be achieved, so i will break it up:

a) Timetabling

Students phased back so that half the students are in for half the time and the other half for the rest. This could be in the form of Morning and Afternoons, although I suspect those who are on the Morning shift will have something to say about this! Monday-Wed Lunchtime and Weds Lunchtime to Friday or one week on one week off, like a horrific two week timetable.

b) Curriculum Changes

These timetable changes would mean that those who are not in school would be set work to complete and bring back to class in a ‘flipped learning’ style. This is not necessarily a preferential form of teaching as:

  1. There is variability in work completed independently
  2. Teachers would require training in effective delivery
  3. Teachers would need to buy in to this (which may not happen evenly)
  4. It relies upon student self motivation
  5. it will decrease the amount we can teach in the curriculum

How effective this would be is not clear. Probably better than pure remote learning, but less good than full time schooling. This could also be an opportunity to look at some of the over-burdened curricula and have a purge, possibly bring back some more student friendly qualifications- I never thought I’d say this, but I miss GCSE Applied Science! It could also be good for training students in how to work independently, a complaint from every school I have ever worked in is that students cannot do this effectively. 

3. Project Based Learning

A title that strikes fear into the hearts of many teachers, but it could be a way to cover the above issues. It could also be put in place with placements with local businesses, taking students out of schools and lowering the difficulties with social distancing. (Caveat: I am just putting thoughts on paper, there are obvious logistical issues here, but is worth thinking through). Engaging students with a project to complete combined with traditional teaching could be a way to motivate them whilst out of school. this again needs plenty of planning, but has been put in place in a few schools in the UK and more so in the US. US schools have particularly has seen an increase in engagement. PBL doesn’t mean setting students a project to prove their grasp of a subject, but teaching them traditionally and getting them to use the basic knowledge we give them to then further their knowledge and produce something worthwhile, which is what brings the engagement. It is not doing away with traditional teaching completely, a school could use 20% of their teaching time for PBL style work, leaving 80% for traditional teaching. This will also set students up for the world of work after leaving school. My school has fantastic links with local businesses and has a purpose. This is what a lot of young people need, especially in run down economically challenged parts of the country. It motovates them and helps them focus on what they need to do in every lesson to get them to their chosen destination.

4. Build Bigger Schools

As I have said before, schools in inner cities are not capable having building extentions, QK School in London, for example, is surrounded by roads and changing the road layout would be impossible! But bigger sites would mean greater propensity for social distancing. Extending sites would also need planning permission and a cash injection of enormous proportions and for an already struggling economy I cannot see that happening.

5. Build More Schools

If we cannot extend schools, then why not build more of them. This would provide additional school places and allow schools to lower their pupil numbers, smaller class sizes will allow greater distancing between everybody in them. This is obviously not a short term fix and relies on the Government being prudent and doing away with their constant efficiency drive (called austerity I think!). Again large amounts of cash would be needed, land to be appropriated and planning permission cleared. There is another issue of inner cities not benefitting as there is little land to build on there. More teachers will be needed, and therefore more money to be ploughed in it, but the Government could hail that as a great success, just as they have the ‘additional’ money goven to the NHS.

There is no perfect way of dealing with this as I have set out, but there is an opportunity to change what we do and how we do it. Education is a contentious and often divisive subject that is heavily politicised in our country and I hope I have managed to cover as many bases as possible. I think it’s clear that we cannot go back to where we were before lockdown and we need to have more thought about protecting vulnerable students and their families.

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