Springing back to school

花見 or Hanami at New Longton Primary School, Lancashire

Our thoughts are with pupils, staff and their communities, who are all readying themselves for the week to come. The cooperative education community has worked harder than ever since March 2020 to do the best for all the young people it serves: we know how our members have gone above and beyond in their commitment to equity and caring for others. School staff are on the front line of social justice in our pandemic world. Thank you.

Schools are community assets
I had the pleasure of being in a school last week, and was reminded of how much we use the word ‘school’ as a simplistic figure of speech. The school I visited, while it had all its staff and a fifth of its children still in it, held a sense of expectation and quietness. Because, when we say schools, we actually mean all the people these buildings connect: the pupils, their families and communities, and the vital staff, from cleaners to teachers, who make them work so well. Schools are their network of relationships and their lifeblood is the people in them. And schools have extended their networks in ways none of us could have foreseen.

This last year has shown what assets schools are, in enabling home learning and in-class learning (often at the same time), providing equipment for children at home, sorting out broadband supply, managing food provision, COVID testing, financial support. Some of you reading this are those staff who have had little time off since March 2020, as you have responded in a considered way to every new missive from the Department for Education, and every sudden change and turn. All the while, you have held your young people at the centre of all you do. 

Schools are the evidence base
As I write this, the Secretary of State for Education is considering alternative options for schools – five term school years, shorter summers, ‘catch up’ sessions in longer school days. He indicates that the government will always be ‘evidence-based’ in its decision-making, as though evidence is not subject to interpretation. Early last week, he stated “evidence-backed, traditional teacher-led lessons with children seated facing the expert at the front of the class are powerful tools for enabling a structured learning environment where everyone flourishes.”

Perhaps some evidence points this way, if we are defining learning in terms of a narrow knowledge based curriculum, or the early development of reading skills. However, classroom staff play much wider roles than as gatekeepers of subject expertise – they are facilitators, coaches, mediators, instigators, creators, instructors, enthusiasts, and story shapers. This is narrow, selective evidence, based on a particular model of what learning is for.

Our young people are the most important evidence base for understanding what learning is for, and for charting the course of this coming year: it is their resilience in lockdown, how they have learned remotely, and their voice we should learn from first. As cooperative schools, we should be ready to hear and learn from our children and young people, and not underestimate their capacity for recovery and regeneration, in spite of the strains they have experienced during a year of turmoil.

Schools create growth
John Draper, Regional Ambassador for the West Region, and Headteacher at Swaythling Primary School, told me last week that his school’s ambition from 8th March was to give children ‘purpose, belonging, fun, and sanctuary’. 

Communities, pupils and staff at cooperative schools have the capacity to shift the narrative about the return to school. The focus on a ‘lost generation’ and filling the gaps through catch up is self-defeating, with the potential to end up like Zeno’s Dichotomy Paradox – the journey never being completed.

Instead, we are thinking with our schools about what education should be for, and how we best serve our communities in getting the learning right for our young people. How do we build a rich curriculum that is engaging and challenging, that builds inventiveness, creativity, and imagination? How do we secure the resilience of our young people, and promote their well-being? How do we integrate our own new technological skills into the classroom? How do we really hear and listen to our young people, so that they are democratic partners in school life, who enable us to be more attentive to equity and equality? How do we play our part in building back fairer, and reducing inequality?

The power of our cooperative network lies in the ability to learning from each other and share experiences. We want to hear from you, share examples here of what our member schools are doing, and support you with your priorities and concerns. If you have a story to tell, or advice to share, or some thoughts to work through, we want to know!

Lee Phillips
National Director

Sunday, 7th March 2021

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