Schools hold the key to successful reopening

28 May 2020

We can’t afford to forget the lessons of this extraordinary period, writes our CEO Kate Chhatwal

As we await a final decision on whether the five - or is it six? – tests have been met that will start the process of expanding primary provision next week, I am reminded of the primary and trust leaders from across our national network who came together just a short week ago to share ideas, plans and challenges around the process. 

Joined by a senior representative for the DfE who engaged with openness and empathy with their questions and suggestions, our discussions revealed strong commonality in approaches, leading to different, context-specific decisions, but also some tricky barriers to successful “reopening” and a palpable sense of life and death responsibility.

Few were expecting to start at maximum capacity. They will start small, test and learn, refine and scale up, building the confidence of staff and parents as they go. Everyone is walking a tightrope, trying to balance risks we don’t fully understand – to pupils, staff and the community (especially those from BAME backgrounds) – with the risks we do understand around children and young people not being in school (particularly those who are vulnerable). 

Naively perhaps, I had expected the majority of the discussions to be about the manifold and complex practicalities of safely expanding provision. Yet while there has been a sharp focus on details like classroom layout and cleaning regimes, the meatier conversations were all around the importance of holding fast to values, recognising the role of school leaders as civic leaders, and the value of over-communication, relationships and the bond of human trust. 

There was optimism and a strong desire to sustain some of the unexpected advances of the past nine weeks. Relationships among the profession and between schools and their communities have flourished, and so have many sometimes-unseen children thanks to new approaches to teaching and learning. Perhaps the greatest ambition for the months ahead is to continue that unity and inclusivity as we all move back from living rooms to classrooms and from devices to desks.

Yet perhaps the greatest risk is that these gains will be lost amid the complexity of continuing to offer two types of provision (on site and online) while expanding to receive the four year groups that could be back from Monday. 

To start with, how can the same teacher provide a positive experience for the children in front of her and simultaneously give resources and guidance to the children who aren’t?

And for those who come in, it will be into an environment that is both familiar and possibly a bit frightening. How is a five-year-old to understand why their favourite beanbag has gone from the book corner or why they can no longer share colouring pencils with their friends? 

This is the reality we are living with, and few are expecting an immediate return to the planned curriculum as a result. Most are preparing for a ‘recovery curriculum’ to meet social and emotional needs. How protracted ‘reopening’ turns out to be is also how long that recovery curriculum will need to be in place. 

Success, in the end, hangs on the same leaders, teachers and support staff who have been relied upon by parents, communities and government throughout the crisis. How will they recover from the challenges and hard work of the past nine weeks and sustain themselves in the weeks, months and years ahead? How will they be supported to, especially in the face of hostility whipped up by certain sections of the press?

Many in our network have said that the professional learning networks they have developed and strengthened have been crucial in providing both support and challenge. We’re all zoomers now, and the explosion in virtual communication has accelerated the ability to share knowledge, expertise and ideas across the length of the country without leaving the (home) office. 

These links, founded on shared moral purpose and deepened in adversity, have huge potential to make inroads into the regional disparities that have long plagued the education system.

The strength to come back from this crisis, and come back stronger, lies in schools themselves. Whatever is announced tonight, every effort from that moment on should be aimed at unleashing it.

  • This article first appeared in Schools Week

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