Schools out for summer (guest)

“A stopped clock is right twice a day”
– Lewis Carroll

Does life under lockdown feel like a stopped clock to you? Who knows – feelings are capricious these days and mutate on the hour. Or maybe it feels more like a pause, like the old business cliché about change, a comma as opposed to a full stop. Coronavirus has certainly enforced a slowing down, a global grinding of gears towards hiatus, blank space, lacunae. However, our beloved, maligned natures, re-appearing as quickly as the startled deer in Asda car parks, abhors their new-found vacuums. Or so we’re told. A real stopped clock, officially sanctioned, would have been intolerable to our authorities.

Thus we’re now being treated to the inevitable filling of these blank spaces: the opportunities, stresses and frustrations of home learning, the unfolding possibilities yet restricted viewpoints of the zoom call, the capitulation to continual production via the freshly minted appetite for working-from-home. It is a chance for many to rediscover the joy of family time. It also makes manifest the desolate anxiety and terror of the newly unemployed, the vulnerable and the abused. Within the cultural, personal, politicised clamour of the media briefings, the coldly calculated manipulation techniques designed to provoke a shift from spin to nudge, the spectre of schools and their inevitable return, looms large in the minds of children, young people and adults.

We witnessed, with unbelievable ease, the overnight slaughter of many sacred educational cows. A sense of the uncanny has infiltrated. Brutally and without mercy, the government sharpened their pitchforks, punctured, and tossed exams, school routines, modes of learning/teaching, and transitions in their myriad of forms, unceremoniously onto the pyre. The reflection of this bonfire of educational vanities flickers in the eyes of the disruptors, the mavericks both within and outwith the system. For those that are critical of our educational institutions and processes, a phoenix of possibility, where substantive changes to the way things are done, may yet rise from the ash. This manifests itself in the re-emergence of critical voices to fill the covid-void whose aim is nothing less than the reforming of educational systems themselves. Well intentioned declamations abound: “we must not return to the way things were”. If not the nettle, there is the sense amongst some, that in Scotland at least, it may be time to grab the thistle.

Coronavirus feels like a transformative, liminal hinterland from which it is impossible to imagine that schools will return to the way things were before. At times, the wrench from previous modes of reality seems irrevocable. But perhaps a note of caution should be struck. Appearances in the inverted looking-glass of lockdown can be deceptive. The truth is that for many, lockdown feels strange, but not completely novel. There’s two groups of people who are used to navigating the terrain of substantial breaks in learning, in routine: young people and teachers. Summer holidays can provide a substantial break which allows for the recalibration of personal interests, more opportunities to be with friends and family, a complete and necessary detachment from the stresses and burdens of expectations and authorities. During a summer holiday, time can feel like a stopped clock and it is glorious. Of course, for others, the same issues of lockdown come into play: looking at how vulnerable children and adults are supported by educational institutions during holidays is a vital discussion for another time.

I talk about the extended breaks for young people and teachers here because it has a flip-side: on returning to school, they are extremely well used to “getting back into the swing of it”. Go and ask the teachers and the young people how they feel on day one after the summer holidays. Go and ask the teachers or young people returning from an extended period of convalescence how they feel on day one. Find the teachers returning from maternity or paternity breaks of 3, 6, 9 or 12 months how they feel on day one. They’ll all say the same thing: “It feels like I’ve never been away”. And really, it doesn’t. The old routines, rules and structures fall back into place as neatly and firmly as an invisible cage descending from the sky.

Many voices are giving us the what of change: this is valuable and necessary. However, less seem able to articulate how or if they are, these are not widely disseminated. Many teachers and other stakeholders in education already wanted change to the system and these feelings will have been amplified by the lockdown. But getting to the “how” is the crux. We need to be pragmatic. Teachers, children and young people may be experiencing their own internal revolution of what is important to them, but without the power to enact change, the dominant systems of which we are all so familiar will re-assert themselves. There will be a need among many to tinker with the clock and get it running again. We all like to know where we are, or at least, when we are.

I want to be pessimistic here because I want to shock us into change. Having our feelings just now feels empowering but it isn’t enough, not by a long shot. I want us all, everyone who participates in education, including parents, to hold onto the lessons that Coronavirus is teaching us. Following its neoliberal market model, schooling seems to demonstrate capitalism’s seemingly indefatigable ability to assimilate change, without letting it modify the underlying frameworks. I want us to be prepared for the system to assimilate our feelings: we need to anticipate this, it’s inevitable – we must use our voices and our actions to resist it. It needs collective will and collective action.

It needs our leaders and those in positions of power to take risks; to foreground the human above the financial. Headteachers can make a difference: with a degree of autonomy, yet still local and close to the ground enough to enact change, they can provide the leadership for more creative ways of learning. But we all need to be on board and develop our appetite for experiments, innovation and possibility. I want us all in education to be aware of the deep need in us to collude with the routines and the institutionalised behaviours we are used to, because it offers security in times of uncertainty. We are often totally complicit in the structures we want to dismantle, but on our return we must develop the courage to resist this.

Give children and young people proper democratic avenues to make decisions about their educational setting, even if, especially if, they will make mistakes. Maybe some schools already do this, in which case, share your practice. Show how failures and mistakes led to growth. Involvement and engagement are the key. Teach children about activism, how they can make a difference. Encourage this type of disruption to your own systems. Give them responsibilities instead of paying lip service via a selected band of pupil council high achievers. Involve everyone. Support the marginalised. Change the routine of your day, week, year. Teach them less. Step back and instead facilitate opportunities for self-directed learning, collaboration and creativity. De-clutter the curriculum: local authorities and government education policy makers should look at the value of having a slower, less intense approach to learning. Ask ourselves what matters. Scrap testing in primary school. Listen to secondary school teachers and permanently dissolve the hierarchical entrenchment of the silver-spooned inequalities of the exam system. Return to pledges to reduce class sizes and follow through. Invest in proper support for children with Additional Support Needs. Scale back the tyranny and the influence of the inspection models. Rule the collation of league tables as unlawful. Use current working from home strategies to encourage employers in other occupations to let parents and carers spend more time at home with their children. Give everyone a three-day weekend and increase holiday entitlement for those workers in the private and public sector who do not get summer holidays. Maybe politicians will continue with their new-found zeal for following “the science” and the “evidence” and put in place changes that peer-reviewed research shows to be effective. You’ll forgive me if I don’t hold my breath.

Coronavirus is showing us we can do the impossible: we have stopped the clocks, we have literally stopped the world. We must harness this amazing superpower we have discovered to effect transformations: none of us need to work our fingers to the bone any more, schools, teaching, learning, parenting, living, just bloody living in the world: it has all changed for now, and this change can be sustained. Let’s be brave and admit that with change we are willing to give up comforts, privileges and advantages. Let’s continue the bonfire of sacred educational cows. If we can all invoke the spirit of resistance at whatever level we operate at, perhaps some positives will arise from the unfolding tragedy around us. Boris is back and with talk of righting the ship, “collective” efforts and the great eventual payback, he’s just about to tighten the screws. It’s going to feel as if he’s never been away. Let’s not fall into the same trap.

David Dick  @paleorangered

Early Years Teacher



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