David Preston, Headteacher of Arnold Lodge School, says chasing ‘academic intervention’ without first ensuring children feel happy, safe and secure will disadvantage children in the long-term.
There are two prevailing questions being asked with regard to schooling. Firstly, we’re asking “when will schools re-open?” It is right to ask when schools will re-open (once it is safe to do so). Children and their parents need this sense of surety. School leaders need to plan to re-open and the logistics that will come with this.
We’re also worried – and I understand why – about children falling behind academically. Just as often as we ask “when will schools re-open?” we’re also asking “how will we catch up the academic gap?” This is, for me, wholly the wrong question. We should, instead, be asking “how can we help children feel ready to learn again?”
Successful school life is a series of rituals. It is a sense of safety and of security. Of friendships and laughter. Children, above all else, need this. For parents trying to support children to learn from home and wondering “how do teachers do this?” the answer is more than the pedagogical skill of teachers; it is the culture, rituals and rules of the classroom and the wider school that support children to be effective learners.
It will be relatively easy for schools to measure the academic impact of the lockdown on children. Schools are so often heavily driven by data – and have been for such a time now – that they will be able to clearly see how the knowledge and skills that children have has shifted against the markers from prior cohorts and age-related expectations. Schools are built to teach children, to assess children’s knowledge and skills and to support children to make academic progress.
Protocols already exist to establish interventions to help pupils who have ‘fallen behind’ to make progress towards their ‘expected’ levels.
‘Gifted and talented’ programmes also exist to ‘push on’ pupils who can go further. Teachers are trained to deliver academic content. Teaching, curriculum planning, assessment frameworks, reporting cycles… these all help schools ensure children build up knowledge and skills, to help children know how to do better next time and to make sustained progress over time. Children will catch up on the learning they may have missed during lockdown.
When children return to school, we must not focus on the ‘academic loss’ children may have suffered. If you speak to children, their sense of loss will be so much broader than that; in years to come, when children look back on the weeks in lockdown, it is the loss of their relationships they will remember most keenly – cancelled football matches, missing gymnastics, birthday parties in isolation, Sunday afternoons with Grandad.
We must, first and foremost, look at the holistic recovery that children will need to help them be better learners in the long-term. We must help children to find their sense of self again, to re-establish friendships and to ensure that children feel safe to resume learning. If we focus immediately on ‘academics’ we run the risk of dismissing the impact of stress and loss on the brain’s ability to learn.
We must begin gradually to allow children to reconnect, to act with empathy and to rebuild routines in the ‘new normal’ that we will find ourselves in. Helping children to be happy in school must be our priority.
We must not chase assessments or data. Not in the short term. Instead, we must focus on the whole child or risk leaving aspects of their development behind.
The child who left school in March may well not to be the same child who returns when schools re-open. We must, first, look to return the children to a place of confidence, of engagement and of well-being. Then, and only then, can we truly help their learning flourish.