CEO's blog: Collaboration is key to better futures

19 March 2021

Dr Kate Chhatwal looks at what we have learned in the year since lockdown and what it means for the future of education

I can hardly believe a year has passed since we went into lockdown. We have learned so much with and from the schools in our network in that time: lessons which make snapping back to the ‘old normal’ neither desirable nor practical. Neither is it a time for knee-jerk reactions to the challenge of ‘catch-up’, which is not yet properly understood. As my colleague Dame Sue John - successful headteacher and key contributor to the success of London Challenge - never fails to remind me: to plot a course to B (better), you have to know where A is (where you are now). 

We know pupils haven’t covered the curriculum content we’d expect. We know they’ve had different experiences of learning remotely. But we don’t yet know how wide or deep those gaps are or what it will take to close them. We also haven’t yet understood the things students might have gained from the challenges and different experiences they’ve had over the past year. Why assume the experience has all been bad?

That is why many schools are taking their time to understand what their pupils are bringing back to school; not joining the bandwagon of summer schools or calls to extend the school year or day. Many schools in Challenge Partners are keen to seize the opportunity to focus on the life-affirming, character-building, cultural and social experiences denied them by the restrictions of the last year. 

Many leaders I speak to felt the autumn term - though difficult and disrupted - was an opportunity seized to accelerate learning. They are optimistic this feat can be repeated if they are given the flexibility to use ‘catch up’ funding to meet the needs of their school communities, unconstrained by expectations that they subscribe to government initiatives. If Ministers can trust teachers to assess students in place of high stakes examinations, surely they can trust them with the important prior task of equipping them to succeed?

Blended approaches are offering enhancements to learning and school life that will surely outlast the pandemic. We know from our schools that some children flourished working remotely, at their own pace. It has also offered opportunities for parental engagement like never before, especially for younger children and those with special educational needs. This is something we can build on.

The other mooted impulse is to increase academisation and certainly the last year has shown the benefits of schools facing novel challenges together. Across Challenge Partners - home to more than 100 academy trusts and a wide range of other local improvement partnerships - we have seen the benefits of different forms of strong collaboration at local level. What matters is that it happens, not the legal structures it happens within. The systemic drive should be to ensure we are not left with ‘orphan schools’, underserved from the partnerships around them.

National organisations like Challenge Partners have a role to play facilitating connections for potentially left-out schools, but also building a network of collaboration, knowledge exchange and mutual accountability for the success of schools and pupils across the country. We have seen the power and benefits of this in the past year, as digital ways of working have unlocked the ability to share ideas and expertise faster and further than ever, even across continents.

In Challenge Partners, we have been blown away that leaders have made time to share while innovating at speed: providing insights and approaches that saved colleagues precious time and headspace. We have had everyone from trust leaders sharing impressive programmes to support pupil mental health; to headteachers blogging on leading through crisis; and senior leaders running webinars on preparing for life after special school. As well as lessons from US education leaders on transforming through crisis after Hurricane Katrina.

Schools have risen magnificently to every challenge thrown at them, showing agility and creativity. Pointed in the right direction, the acceleration we have seen in schools and the system could speed us into a better future where excellence and equity go hand-in-hand, provided we learn from each other what really works. Too much time has been wasted on league tables and competition. Only by working together can we ensure we give all children the best start in life.

* This article was first published in Schools Week