We have learned a number of interesting things through this Crisis. We have learned that we can lose significant numbers of our friends and colleagues and that fundamental injustice will still dominate the news and mood of the country, we have learned that schools are largely inflexible buildings, we have learned that teachers are simultaneously key workers and central to the nations response to a global crisis, and lazy, overpaid and always on holiday.
Most importantly we have learned that at a point of real risk, mired in fear, a vast majority of people do what’s right. Despite their personal impacts, they will think of others and make sacrifices for them. We have learned how central to the country’s economy the education system is, how important it is for reasons other than education to society. Most importantly we have had it confirmed how critical schools are to the students who attend, how much they miss school, and how overjoyed they are to return when they have been forced to separate.
Therefore for a brief period, the country, and indeed the world has looked at schools in a strange way. They have almost been giving them a sideways glance whilst re-evaluating what they think of school and education as a whole.
Headlines about league tables, inspection grades and exam results have abated and been replaced with thoughtful discussion (sometimes) about care, mental health, emotional development and physical development in addition to vulnerability. We have witnessed the lived experience by many, of just how tricky it is to teach children away from school. Particularly in the midst of other, competing demands.
We have specifically learned that in special schools that if you are independent, there are significant chasms between different Local authorities’ motivation. Motivated by the needs of the students, and the security of provision to return to, or looking to quickly save a few pounds, putting pressure on even short term provision. We learned that the need shown across the country in mainstream provision, of the families and the children and young people we support, is dialled up to maximum when looking at those who attend special schools.
We learned that a significantly increased percentages of our students experienced a drop in their mental health. Significant enough to require interventions by professional services. Unfortunately, we also learned that those community services had been redeployed, therefore being unavailable. We learned in the light of this that schools stepped in, and did what they could to fill the gap, because in reality they always do, it just isn’t highlighted in the daily and termly grind.
What does that mean for what we keep and change?
It means that we ensure the focus on education does not narrow down political lines, or indeed those lines which have traditionally been drawn in schools and reduce the flip flop of short termism.
It means that the financial importance of not only education, but schools being open, must be recognised and acknowledged. Ensuring funding tracks fairly against this rediscovered importance. We must focus genuinely on the young people not fully embraced by the education system, or at risk of falling out of it. The families of those children and young people must be supported to engage and hold teaching to a higher standard, and importantly, with a higher level of esteem.
We need to identify skills we learned, the new approaches we developed, and the new view we took of our profession. When the playing field is levelled by something this catastrophic, you see we’re all in this together. We realise that no one wins, when politics becomes the driver, it is unfortunate that the very organisations pertaining to support us, are politically motivated and diametrically opposed; effectively crippling progress, in any direction.
Fear and intimidation never go well in anyones existence, so taking out these factors from professional life can be very liberating. Micromanaging does nothing but stifle creativity, and therefore outcomes. I don’t believe that any of our systems were created to enslave, or intimidate. They were, I believe, intended to improve and standardise quality. This has in some small ways, depending on which metric you read had impact. It is time to elevate the ‘profession’ of teaching, to inject creativity and nuance, this will lead to exponential growth.
What do we do next?
We must call out the focus on the minutiae of all aspects of our work, dictated from above and judged by people comparing practice to bullet points in an instruction manual. Schools need to be impacted positively by interactions with government departments and inspectorates, not live in fear of them. I have never had an unfair, or unbalanced experience of Ofsted, nor have I personal experience of an unfair or unbalanced inspector, what I have experienced is a systemic lack of nuance that has been difficult for all involved.
We must develop trusting and open understanding of all strands of our system. I choose to work in independent special education, because I know that I have the ability to apply nuance. I do not work in the independent sector for profit, or money, as that is not a genuine or true reflection. What I have always found, is that we provide the system with balance and expertise. We support, and we adapt to need. I am proud to continue that, but it will be easier all round, if historic, often politically motivated attitudes are dropped in order to allow closer working with the maintained sector (ironically post acadamisation, all but independent themselves), as the students and their families will win.
We keep the creativity that has been required reacting to crisis. We remember the vulnerable children who have never been in the news so much. We recognise that social, financial and health disparities actually lead to suppressed achievement. We plan for the long term; an arc of development reaching far in to the future, based on evidence and our students needs and wishes. We learn from the flexible approach that we have employed recently for the benefit of those who need it in the short term, we absolutely do not employ them to avoid providing what a child actually needs.
We depoliticise our profession, we listen to all, and respond through considered action, for the benefit of our students, and the professionals scaffolding their developmental journey. We reset our views on holistic development of children and young people, allowing skills and talents to emerge, employing a wider range of tools. We lead this development together, trusted with strategic freedom.
We acknowledge the past, and pay homage to it, but we should not be restrained by it. We work together for the benefit of all, openly and respectfully, with challenge and reflection, but always looking forward on our journey, the route of which, needs to be in the control of those of us actually delivering it, despite the shackles and barriers currently in place.
By Ian Thorsteinsson