The road to recovery: An action plan for our education system in 2021
As we begin a third national lockdown, schools face mounting challenges. Our CEO identifies key priorities and actions to ensure a fair education for all.
Schools are closed to many pupils until February half-term at the earliest. Summer exams are cancelled. Our education system faces a massive challenge, which will endure long after lockdown.
The immediate priority is to ensure digital access for those pupils learning at home, and vaccinations for school staff so that we can reopen schools as quickly and safely as possible. Digital access means devices, absolutely, but it also means affordable broadband, quality content, a place to study and IT support. There's a lot more to online learning than a laptop.
How should we replace exams?
The next priority is to figure out how to replace exams. We should not be obsessed with how we measure pupils (or schools for that matter) but with the role that exams play. We should worry about function not form. Exams, and the grades they provide, are a passport to the next phase of study, training or work. Next academic year and over the course of lifetimes. Our task is clear: how do we ensure that every young person moves on to the right destination for them: be that sixth form, college, university, apprenticeship or work? We don't necessarily need exams or grades to achieve this.
Digital access means devices, absolutely, but it also means affordable broadband, quality content, a place to study and IT support. There's a lot more to online learning than a laptop.
We can afford to be generous with a group of young people who have already lost so much. Part of the role that grades play is to ration limited places at university and on to training schemes. Making more places available will reduce the need for this role.
However, objectivity is also vital. Students from disadvantaged backgrounds are often negatively impacted by informal or ambiguous assessments and it is these students who have already suffered the most loss during lockdown. If your parents have the clout to lobby for better grades, or if you present yourself as the 'type' of student who 'ought' to go to university, you may be able to navigate more subjective assessments more successfully. Teachers know their pupils well, trust them to assess their work, don’t overburden them with cumbersome training, but do support them to counterbalance the bias that every single person has so that grades are as fair as they can be.
We should not be obsessed with how we measure pupils (or schools for that matter) but with the role that exams play. We should worry about function not form.
How we replace exams is as important as what we replace them with. We need an early plan. We need contingencies if things don't turn out as expected. We need to be informed and expect challenge and critique. And we need the confidence and buy-in of teachers, who will be the ones making it work.
Once we have got young people where they need to go, we need to ensure they thrive. One role that exams play is to verify that they are capable of the next course of study. Good grades in maths at A-level indicate that you might have the potential to succeed in Physics at university. To be honest, exams are not as good at this as we might hope - there are students who fail to get the grades their talent deserves. But with learning loss, we should be wary of people arriving unprepared.
Investing in transition stages
The next phase of our recovery should be a massive investment in transition - from early years to primary, from primary to secondary, from GCSE years to sixth form and college, from sixth form to university. All of these count, but I am particularly concerned for a cohort of students arriving underprepared at university next Autumn. There is obvious potential for an extension of the National Tutoring Programme over the summer and early Autumn to help this year's school leavers bound back.
And what about the longer-term? As restrictions ease by Easter, following vaccinations, many of us will want to forget this dark period in a hurry. But some in our country will not be able to. Our young people in particular will carry a burden for years to come; and it will be those growing in poverty and disadvantage who will bear more than their fair share.
What lies ahead on the road to recovery?
The first step on the road to recovery is stable, high-quality teaching. The impact of this extended period out of school will be felt for a long-time, especially by children in poorer areas, so we need more people to become inspirational teachers to help them recover.
We should not under-estimate the importance of a return to norms. We should avoid distracting schools with unnecessary initiatives or overbearing accountability: let them focus on the students. A moratorium on non-recovery initiatives and targets would help greatly.
Secondly, the National Tutoring Programme has real potential to level the playing field: if it becomes an enduring, wide-spread and fully-funded part of the system. Access to private tutoring is a major source of inequality in our country: imagine the impact if our most disadvantaged children got it as a matter of course.
We should not under-estimate the importance of a return to norms. We should avoid distracting schools with unnecessary initiatives or overbearing accountability: let them focus on the students.
Thirdly, the pandemic has shown that our education system is both too centralised and too fragmented. We lack a trusted middle tier that encompasses all schools and which can adapt general principles to local conditions and which can co-ordinate support and advice. Too many head teachers have had to make decisions in unnecessary isolation during this crisis.
The time to strive for a fair education system is now
Ultimately, if we want a fair country, we need a fair education system. Outcomes in education should not depend on your family income or your postcode. The real driving force behind this is the school.
We know it can be done: there are schools serving the most disadvantaged communities who achieve outstanding results for the poorest children, whether that be exams, access to university, great jobs or pride and self-confidence. What if the thousand schools with the most disadvantaged pupils were our best schools? What is standing in their way? If they were first in line for funding, for talented staff, for support and guidance, for status and space, each of them could achieve this.
That's the challenge for the next decade: to ensure the schools with the greatest challenges are our best - and best equipped - schools.