Sometimes, when I’m working with leaders or teachers we indulge in “possibility thinking” what would you do if there were no barriers in place? If you had infinite time, money, resources, skills, no agenda, no limits? What would your school/ setting/ classroom look like?
It’s not as easy as you think. We are so constrained by all the restrictions placed upon us that the idea of letting them go can initially seem liberating, but also terrifying.
This might sound like a waste of time. Of course, we don’t have infinite time, money, skills, resources and of course we’re bound by the current rules and regulations, so why waste our time even thinking about it? But, when we indulge in possibility thinking, I find that we really reveal our true values.
This is a great question to ask ourselves. “If my approach were perfect, what would it look like?”
Knowing your values is, in my opinion, fundamental to becoming a great educator. What made you become a teacher? What do you want for your children? What will success look like?
When we truly know our values, we can begin to try to live and breathe them. I say “try”. It should be easy, shouldn’t it? But we are constrained by some of the systems in which we work.
What if we weren’t? This is where the possibility thinking comes in.
Which brings me to what sparked this blog. Yesterday the education secretary announced that the wider opening of schools would not be happening before the end of the summer term. I know many of us who have been working hard to support leaders to open schools to YN, YR, Y1 and Y6 breathed a sigh of relief.
The work required to bring these 4 year groups back has been immense and I know there was a great deal of anxiety around space and staffing issues.
It does mean, however, that by September, some children will have been out of school since March, and will not have had any formal schooling for 5 months. If we take out the usual time allocated for holidays that equates to 14 weeks or 70 days of lost school time. It is a lot, there’s no getting away from that. Headlines abound declaring that the children will have lost “years of learning”, particularly the most disadvantaged. Incidentally, I am delighted to see the Government’s current concern about disadvantaged children and look forward to the investment in many useful programmes to support them and their families when we return to school. I think it would be fabulous to have something which gives them a Sure Start in life.
Understandably, this is causing anxiety for teachers, for children and their families. The truth is we can’t know how children will be affected. Some may have stalled in their progress, some may have flourished and some will need additional support to be ready to learn in school again. But there is no doubt a huge amount of anxiety around this, which has been further compounded the education secretary’s declaration that 2021 exams and assessment will go ahead as normal.
What we have been through is anything but normal. It is unlikely that things will return to anything like normal any time soon. We can not pretend this pandemic has never happened. If we do, I fear that we will fall into the trap of “catch up” quick fixes which appear to improve exam outcomes in the short term but do nothing for children’s learning in the long term, or for their wellbeing. We already have some of the most unhappy children in the world
We have seen an increase in the number of children with mental health issues over the last few years. According to NHS data, the number of children diagnosed with mental health disorders has risen and this was before we went into lockdown.
The last thing we need right now is to put more pressure on our children. The results could be catastrophic.
This is where possibility thinking comes in. Many of the greatest endeavours in history have their roots in upheaval. Take the NHS as an example. After the destruction of World War 2, in the midst of financial devastation, the government built a system which went on to become the envy of the world. What if we were to use our experiences here to reflect and consider the possibility of a radical approach to education?
Here’s an idea. What if, instead of going back in September having missed 70 days of school, we send our children back having gained 120 days of school? Without having to time travel. Sounds impossible? It isn’t, and the answer is quite simple.
What if we press the reset button and send them back to the year group they left?
What if instead of moving to a new class, with a new teacher, a new set of expectations and a feeling that they’re already behind, we send them to school feeling like they’ve got this! Like they are returning to the familiar and that they have a little time to catch up? A little breathing space? Wouldn’t that be amazing?
It is achievable I am sure.
How would this work? Well, it won’t be without issues, I work with enough schools to know that some would find this more challenging than others. Space, staffing and funding are all key issues, and this is why it would need full funding and the backing of the government.
If we take the cost of all the interventions which will probably be necessary if we attempt to carry on in September as if nothing has happened, then it will probably work out costing a great deal less. Instead of spending money on intervention programmes, let’s spend that money on providing some breathing space by repeating a year. Yes, it will be expensive, but it’s not a case of doing this or do nothing. Whatever happens, is going to cost money, but more importantly than that it will have a human cost.
How much is the government going to invest in catch up programmes?
How much is the government going to have to spend on recruitment and retention? I know lots of people in the profession who are considering leaving, and we already have a recruitment and retention crisis. The extra pressure may be the final straw, let’s remove that extra burden on teachers AND children.
How much does the government spend on Ofsted and SATS assessments? Couldn’t we divert the money elsewhere temporarily? Our Schools minister declared that SATS were not important for children less than two weeks ago, so let’s put children first and spend the money on something which will help them, instead.
What is the long- term cost of mental health issues – CAHMS referrals, potential exclusions etc? The government’s own statistics around outcomes for children with identified SEND reveal a pretty shocking picture. The link between early support for SEND and later outcomes is clear. Why not invest in some time to ensure that all children have the opportunity to make up for their lost time in school.
Use the money we spend on catch up interventions, SATS, league tables, Ofsted, Baseline Assessment, PSC, times tables tests etc. to fund additional temporary classrooms where needed. I’m sure the 25% of inspectors who are not serving headteachers would be delighted to get back into the classroom to help out, and it would be brilliant CPD too. I always find a few hours in the classroom teaching invigorates and inspires.
Take the army of volunteers which so many commentators have been suggesting could teach our children to get them back into school quickly, use the next 3 months to give them some high-quality training and put them into the classroom (paid on an UQT rate) you never know, we might see a new love for the profession. I know this idea needs a little more exploring but it’s definitely possible, if we can put Teach First candidates into the classroom after 8 weeks training, we can definitely do something in the 12 weeks we have available to us.
Anyone who has ever managed a bulge year or had to deal with a school in a crisis knows what is possible when you put your mind to it. My first ever teaching job was in a school which had burned to the ground one New Years Eve and opened up again to >200 children in temporary buildings with minimal equipment on the 18th January. Teachers are awesome. Let’s face it, after what heads and teachers have faced over the last few months, providing an extra year group is the least of their challenges.
We would be creating a system which would support all children who have experienced the most momentous event. Many of whom will have been devastated by loss.
I know this approach would raise more questions than answers, but the ones which spring to mind straight away are:
What would happen to those about to start school?
I would propose a “Kindergarten year” where children who were due to start school in September 2020 join a Kindergarten class which provides a holistic curriculum and supports them to be truly “school ready” for 2021. This might be the opportunity we’ve been looking for! This is obviously a passion of mine so I would like to develop this idea further in a future blog.
What about university?
We would see a year without a full cohort of students moving into the university sector. Maybe not this year, as students may well still be able to take up places providing they achieve their grades, but in the following year.
Universities and the government could use this additional time to plan how they might ensure their survival following the crisis. I am by no means an expert in higher education, so will not pretend I have any answers here. We may see students who delayed their course start due to the current crisis, taking up places in 2021 instead. Most people I know in the sector feel that we will see a decrease in the number of students starting university over the next couple of years as a result of this crisis. So this one needs some more careful consideration. If anyone from the sector would like to do some possibility thinking around this one, I’d be delighted if you’d like to put your thoughts together in a blog, I’d be happy to host it on my site.
What about the knock on effect for secondary schools? What would happen to year 6?
Could we look at a gradual transition year, or maybe look at what happens in the middle school system? Again I would welcome thoughts from those working in the sector on how this might work. Obviously, for those still working in a three tier system we would need to consider the implications for year 4/5. Maybe you work in the sector and have some ideas about this and would like to blog.
How much would it cost?
Well, this is a blog, not a business plan, so I haven’t done a full-scale analysis. It will be expensive. But then, whatever we do is going to be expensive. If we are to support our children, especially the most vulnerable, who the government have developed a very keen interest in over the last few weeks, then we really do need to put our money where our mouth is. I think a better question to ask might be, how much will it cost if we don’t do it?
That’s the thing about possibility thinking – you have the idea and then tackle the issues one by one, then you work out whether the benefits of doing something radically different outweigh the cost of all the changes you need to make. I’m not saying that this idea is without its challenges.
This blog is really me playing around with ideas, “thinking out loud”. I know this is not something which is likely to happen, but I do think a conversation from different parts of the education sector about how it might or might not work would be really interesting.
I’d like to start a conversation. Tell me where I’m getting this wrong, and where it might be right (kindly of course). But let’s have a conversation. I’m sure lots of people will tell me of all sorts of issues that I haven’t even considered. I know that some of the schools I work with would be able to do this with relative ease and for others it would pose a HUGE challenge
In the last 12 weeks the education sector has shown us that it’s a challenge we’re more than capable of facing. I’m just suggesting that we think beyond the linear. Think of the possibilities….