No one can pretend that any of this is easy; anyone who watched the First Minister’s announcement on Monday could see how genuinely frustrated and upset she was to have to be locking us all down again, and yes, she did say that the very hardest decision was that which caused schools to be closed for the whole month at least, with a consequent return to ‘online learning’. Sitting here now, with dreary January spread out before us like a large grey wet blanket, all we can do is huddle down, enjoy our ‘unlimited exercise’ (and drink) and hope that the schools can get back in February.
Schools – and I appreciate I’m simplifying here – do three things. The first, most obvious one, is that they teach young people to read, to write, to count, and then, as time passes, more complex things in the form of ‘subjects’ – you might call this the academic purpose, but increasingly I don’t like the word ‘academic’ which is used too much in defining children’s abilities (what does ‘he’s not very academic’ mean, and is it a useful thing to say about anybody when there are so few real alternatives for the ‘non-academic’ child?)
Anyway, the second purpose is a more holistic one – we are educating our young people to prepare them for the world – it isn’t enough for them just to learn Chemistry and Music, they need to understand about the world and be able to face it as resilient, informed and caring people. We do this through specific classes – called all sorts of things like PSE (Personal and Social Education); we do it through the curriculum outside the classroom – sport, music, charity work and serving in the community; we do it through Pastoral Care, where, one on one, young people are helped through difficult times in their life by skilled professionals and we do it by letting our young people interact with each other – there’s a reason for the old trope that the happiest times in a child’s life are ‘playtime, lunchtime and hometime’ – it’s because that’s when they can really be with their friends and being with your friends is, for most young people, the best bit about being at school. Incidentally, the mistake (a terrible mistake) made by the engineers of ‘Curriculum for Excellence’ was to confuse the first and second purposes of school and thus create a big mess (to use educational jargon).
The third purpose, of course, is that children need to go somewhere while their parents work; this is not, of course, how teachers like to think about school, but it is a practical economic necessity.
Now, no matter what the science is telling us about the spread of COVID, no one can deny that the online offer does not fulfil the second or third purposes of schools – it simply can’t. Taking part in an online choir may have had a novel quality at Christmas, but it’s not the same thing as singing with your pals there. As mental health issues spiral among young people, guidance teachers can’t do much online, and this while NHS services like CAMHS are drowning. Most sport is gone for the time being. And, obviously, the childcare is now back full time with parents, as they themselves struggle to adjust their working and family lives back to lockdown.
Of course, this affects some children more than others, and I hope the Inspectorate is busy readying themselves to say so through careful scrutiny of the online offer. Children who generally cope better with learning, and children whose parents are ready and able to help, will do much better. Broadly speaking, it would appear from the last bout of online learning that independent schools can offer more online. None of this is a surprise or anybody’s fault, but it does mean that the poverty-related attainment gap widens incrementally every day of lockdown that passes.
So currently, two groups of pupils are allowed to attend school – children of key workers, and ‘vulnerable’ children – to be honest I have no notion of which agencies decide on the membership of this latter group, and I fear that a great many children are vulnerable in one way or another right now. I wonder, though, if we shouldn’t be thinking about adding in another group – those for whom online learning clearly isn’t having any impact at all. These could be children who can’t access online learning, perhaps because of issues with broadband or hardware; children who choose not to benefit from whatever it is their school can offer online, or children who are deemed by their teachers to lack the skills necessary for what is, after all, a completely different way of learning, involving much more independence and self-discipline, particularly if you can’t rely on your family for support. The evidence from the last round of online learning suggests that these three groups exist, and it’s a fair bet that many of these young people will fall into the very bottom achievers at the moment, the ones who most need to be supported if the attainment gap isn’t to become the attainment chasm. Teachers could, I think, identify these children very quickly.
Parents quite clearly do not agree about school closure, some expressing relief over Monday’s announcement, and others horror, these latter very often having older children approaching what we used to call ‘exams’. As we wait for the vaccine, and wait for spring to break, maybe we need to bring some more children into the ‘vulnerable’ category and back into schools, in an effort to shore up their educational progress, to encourage them to do some work in the hands of skilled teachers doing what they themselves have been trained to do.