When Government announced that schools would have to be closed as part of the national effort to fight the Covid 19 pandemic, parents around the country were naturally understanding and collaborative, despite the many challenges it presented to families; notably those with members as key workers and those with underlying health conditions. School leaders, teachers and support staff have risen impressively to the challenge with a view to securing short-term continuity of education for our children. Our sincere admiration and thanks go out to all those key workers who have kept our country going during the past several months.
Given the urgency to commence lockdown, it has fallen on school leaders to decide what would be the best teaching model to use for their circumstances, taking into account the relevant variables such as staffing levels and IT capabilities. As a result, schools up and down the country have chosen widely varying solutions to providing education continuity. It has become evident that private school establishments were largely better prepared for lockdown than grant-maintained schools, conscious as they would have been of the high expectations placed upon them by fee-paying parents. But even within the grant-maintained sector there have been marked differences in both delivery methods and quality of teaching. In the state sector, limited expectation appears to have been placed on schools to deliver excellence through the prolonged period of lockdown.
During a short period or crisis, differences in delivery quality are easily tolerated in the expectation that before long, the ‘normal’ system can and will resume. However, no-one could have predicted that schools would stay closed quite as long as they have been already; and we are horrified at reports that even the new school year may not start as scheduled in September. It must be a government priority to ensure that the 2020/21 school year starts and finishes as planned.
Against this background, the different approaches between schools and the knock-on effects of the choices made by school leadership teams and their Trustees/Governors on the future opportunities of our children are becoming extremely concerning and in need of detailed investigation and scrutiny. The longer the divergence of delivery persists, the more stark the inequalities become; between the State and Independent sector, between Grammar Schools, CoE schools and Academies and between schools in different parts of the country. Those inequalities have already, and will continue to have, grave consequences for our children if they are not recognised and dealt with promptly.
Our personal experience:
Our daughter attends [school name] Grammar School in [location] and is in the crucial Year 10, preparing for GCSE exams next June. She is a diligent student who achieves good results in most subjects and her academic development matters greatly to her as her future ambitions are becoming clearer to her.
In the immediate transition from normal school life to lockdown schooling, we were impressed with the sense of urgency and level of calm organisation displayed by the school. Clear and digestible information was provided via the school website.
From the start of lockdown, teachers would send guidance to students on Monday morning regarding the work to be completed for the whole week, along with relevant video links and any work to be submitted for marking. Teachers would occasionally be available via email to answer any queries.
Our daughter took to the new method quickly and displayed the self-discipline required to follow the normal timetable throughout the week, a discipline that we are pleased she has been able to retain. She suffers from mild, high-functioning autism (previously known as Asperger’s Syndrome) which causes periods of anxiety in school. Whilst lockdown has provided respite from the social pressures of school which are often a trigger for her anxiety, the lack of guidance and support has left her feeling insecure about her progress. This has placed new pressures on her mental health.
As parents, we appreciated the opportunity to be more closely involved, although we were not always able to help with the work if she became stuck and it wasn’t always possible to get hold of teachers in order to clarify things. This has led to frustration and a lack of direction at times. She has found it particularly challenging to both take the time to teach herself the subject and then complete all the exercises required in the normal school day. She has often worked late at night and at the weekends. Infrequent contact with teachers and sparse feedback has at times been demoralising.
It was therefore always logical to us that, in time, remote learning would begin to involve direct contact using online video conference technology, which in many ways has been the breakthrough technology of the lockdown that has enabled a level of continuity for many areas of society, both social and economic. Unfortunately, this logical advance began to seem unlikely when for safeguarding reasons, the school did not allow direct verbal or video contact between students and teachers, not even to answer queries.
Talking to friends with children at other schools, both private and grant-maintained, we learned the following:
- Without exception, private schools in the [location] area have been able to pivot from full face to face teaching to full online teaching, following the existing timetable, using video-conferencing technology from the start of the lockdown.
- Several other grant-maintained schools in the same area had been able to introduce full or part online teaching, following the existing timetable, within a reasonable period after lockdown began.
- Other schools, who for various reasons were unable to teach live, were also able to record and provide online lessons for the students to access at home.
Until today, the only innovation introduced by [school name] beyond what was available when lockdown commenced, is periodic Microsoft Teams instant messaging chats with teachers to deal with student queries. Repeated queries as to the school’s intentions with regards direct teaching online have gone unanswered until last week, when we were advised that a series of webinars (2hrs per subject in total before September) are to be introduced alongside the very limited face to face sessions that can be held on-site during June. In that communication it was confirmed that teachers are currently as a rule relying on their own private IT equipment to do their jobs from home; if they are well enough to do so, or do not have childcare responsibilities.
[school name] approach to implementing the government guidance requesting ‘some face to face contact’ between students and teachers has been one of minimal compliance with one four-hour session offered per core subject (English, Maths and Science), to be held at school for year 10 students before the end of the year (3 half days in total). Whilst we agree that it gives students the opportunity to meet some of their classmates, we question the educational value of these sessions over and above the webinar approach. We understand that lack of physical space to allow all students on site at the same time, whilst observing social distancing, affects all but a small minority of schools.
Our personal experience raises the following observations: