Since early March, the subject of school closures and reopenings has dominated the news, as well as conversations between teachers, parents and students. They say that a week is a long time in politics; four months in education has felt like a rollercoaster!
Whilst schools have remained open for vulnerable and key workers’ children – and some year groups and other categories of students have now gradually been returning for face-to-face support – ‘going back to school’ in September will undoubtedly feel very different.
During the lockdown, parents have been forced to become home educators, kitchens have been converted into classrooms, and distance learning become the norm. Many schools have been delivering lessons on virtual platforms like Microsoft Teams and Zoom. Work has continued to be set, laptops provided for some disadvantaged families, and batches of work posted to homes with limited or no internet access. But even for the most independent and self-driven of learners, it hasn’t been easy. Social distancing has separated students not only from their teachers, but also their friends, grandparents and other loved ones.
More positively, this period has enabled pupils to spend more quality family time, start new hobbies, get to better know and support their neighbours, catch up on Netflix and work out with Joe Wicks!
So what will ‘returning’ to school look like, and how can teachers be better prepared for it?
For a start, why not listen to the very people who have been affected the most: students. I asked Year 7, 10 and 12 pupils at my school to complete an anonymous online survey to gauge their feelings about being in lockdown, and hopes about returning to school.
How have you felt about being away from school?
Some students spoke of being “lonely” and “sad” about being away from school, and others have felt good about being able to “take things at my own pace” and been “happy and enjoying time at home”. A small number talked about some work being “a lot to handle” and not being “as productive as I would be at school”, but the overwhelming majority have been managing “fine” and “well”.
What have you missed?
All have really missed the school environment, specifically their “friends”, “routine”, “normal lessons”, “socialising”, “seeing people at school”, “teachers”, “resources” and some mentioning their favourite subjects. There was also consensus about wanting everything to go back to as normal as possible – “sitting with our friends” and “learning properly again” – as well as not wanting to “fall behind” and being given “time for recap” on previous work.
How do you think you have coped with the work set by teachers?
Notwithstanding some of the obstacles in lockdown, many students expressed pride in the progress they have made including “persevering through difficult tasks”, “improving essay technique”, “completing the work set” and “grasping concepts I initially found challenging”. Teachers were thanked for “fantastic” resources and “well tailored” online lessons, together with “effective methods of revision”. All but a few have found accessing and following instructions “Easy” and the level of challenge “Just right”. When asked to rate their overall well-being on a scale of 1-10 (10 being high), the vast majority said 7 or above.
What advice would you give for when school reopens?
Students seem prepared for the impact of social distancing and the ‘bubble’ effect, such as the “arrangement of classrooms”, “class sizes”, “timetable” and “essentially everything” including how they come into, walk around and leave school. There was sensible advice for their peers, from recognising that some are “feeling anxious and stressed” (Year 10) and “keep calm – things will be normal soon” (Year 12) to “have fun” (Year 7).
Advice for teachers was particularly heart-warming, including “Just do your best” and “Take it easy”! Naturally, some students want teachers to keep in view how tricky they have found learning at home, as a few have “lacked resources and struggled to access everything”, meaning “some students will need to be taught again”.
How can we help?
The reality is that everyone is entering new territory in education: an era of ‘blended learning’ combining in-school support, remote learning and independent study. How can we help students integrate into this? We are still in a time of rapid change and uncertainty, and one size won’t fit all, but the following are things we can continue to provide our students.
Continue being compassionate about what they have been and are still going through. Some have been affected by the cancellation of this summer’s exams, or seen their parents out of work, and naturally become worried about their own future.
Recovering from this lockdown experience will take some time, and so the language and tone in our communications is critically important. Parents and carers have been very appreciative of staff showing great sensitivity throughout this period.
Students have suffered a major disruption to their education and will need help to get back on their feet and re-engage with the curriculum, without compromising on usual high standards and expectations of positive mindsets and behaviour. Nor does this require any radical reworking of a school’s schemes of learning. For examination groups, awarding bodies have advised filling knowledge gaps above new content as appropriate, at least for the short-term. Dawn Cox’s excellent piece, while focusing on RE, offers some very practical tips for all subjects in this regard.
Current Year 12s have an exciting opportunity to look ahead to post-16 options, such as UCAS applications, and tutors will provide very valuable assistance in this process as they always do.
A plethora of high quality online resources continue to be made available for free by various education providers and publishers like OUP, and teachers are generously sharing their materials on social media. These help to both reduce teachers’ workload and keep learning going wherever students are.
Having enhanced their own digital skills and become more tech-savvy, many teachers have been creating podcasts, narrated PowerPoint presentations and YouTube videos for the benefit of students, so they can hear a familiar voice to make the learning more personal. The beauty with these, like recorded lessons on virtual platforms, is that they will become a permanent resource. To prevent excessive screen time, encourage students to use textbooks, printed workbooks and other paper-based formats, where possible.
Homework can be collected, marked and fed back through Microsoft Teams or Google Classroom, thus avoiding multiple emails flooding everyone’s inbox, especially if students are having to work from home.
Evidently, students have sorely missed their teachers and normal school routine, and need frameworks for how to organise themselves again. Work should be modelled, manageable and meaningful, with clear instructions given to help all students understand what they have to do, how and when to do it, and how much time to spend on it.
Prioritising revisiting and reviewing prior learning, such as through retrieval and interleaving methods, would be beneficial to all, though many students will be resilient and resolute enough to want further challenge and move on with the next stage of their courses. This too needs to be carefully planned and sequenced, through week-by-week timelines, as will assessments and interventions.
Of course many schools are already doing this and more, and have rigorous systems in place ready for September – including ensuring that they have capacity to offer their full curriculum remotely if such a need arises.
Celebrating achievements, and looking ahead
Lockdown has certainly helped to bring school communities closer and make relationships between teachers, parents and pupils even stronger. Through videos and newsletters there has been a wonderful celebration of the inspiring things staff and students have been doing at home, such as raising money for charity, and to share personal reflections, for example on fasting during the month of Ramadan. Staff have been enjoying weekly online quiz nights, and parents have been emailing to thank them for the continuing academic and pastoral support being given to their children. As we approach the summer holidays, virtual platforms are also providing opportunities for classes to come together to celebrate having made it this far and to bring some closure to a relentless but, hopefully, rewarding year!
This makes for a great set up for creating an environment that both students and staff can look forward to returning to in September.
The last many weeks has reiterated how education is never just about preparing students for exams, but their holistic development as individuals. I heard the inspirational Mary Myatt say at an RE conference, “Young people are humans first, learners second”. That has stuck with me since, and whilst it’s always been true, it is arguably more important now than it has ever been.
Waqar Ahmad Ahmedi is Head of Religious Studies at Kings Norton Girls’ School. He has authored several textbooks for Oxford’s GCSE Religious Studies for Edexcel series.