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Teacher Toby Marshall reflects on a recent Education Forum discussion…

Last month I took great pleasure in chairing the Academy of Ideas Education Forum.

The online discussion followed a year of significant disruption to the normal routines of education. Contact with students had been maintained during lockdown, but in the absence of the rich communication afforded by in-person teaching, many educators, including myself, were more than little concerned as to what we might encounter as schools and colleges started to reopen.  

On the night we had three speakers with differing perspectives. Speaking first was Molly Kingsley, co-founder of UsForThem, a campaign group which has ensured that the needs of students have been at the forefront of discussions over the societal and education impact of lockdown. Molly was then followed by Sarah Standish, a school counsellor of many years experience. Sarah has been working at the sharp end of the student experience during this period. Finally, a more theoretically inclined viewpoint was provided by Dr. Ken McLaughlin, Senior Lecturer in Social Work at Manchester Metropolitan University.

The introductions and discussion explored many different aspects of the experience of lockdown, but two particularly important themes emerged. One was the danger of overstating the permanent psychological consequences of lockdown, and in doing so impeding a much needed return to normality. This point was balanced somewhat by a recognition of the need to keep an eye on students with preexisting support needs. It was felt that their experience of lockdown would have exacerbated existing problems.

Another second thread, initiated from the floor, suggested those who are critical of lockdown policy have too often framed the case for personal freedom in terms of mental health. In doing so, it was argued, they have been overly defensive.

I felt that there was a great deal to commend this point. Young people, and especially teenagers, do indeed need spaces in which feely associate and interact, places in which to get things wrong, and to get things right. The consequences of being denied these simple freedoms are unclear, and perhaps secondary. Freedom to associate and interact, away from the control of adults, brings them a great deal of pleasure, and no doubt many tears, but is the basis on which they lead a full life. The young have sacrificed a great deal and in my view far too much during lockdown.

A recording of the discussion can be found below. I hope you enjoy watching it as much as I enjoyed chairing it.

The speed with which children were abandoned shows how little we value education, argues Education Forum organiser Gareth Sturdy in Spiked…

In the space of a year, the government’s response to Covid-19 has attacked the foundations and purposes of our education system. It has exposed the education establishment’s attachment to social mobility as mere pretension. It has eroded the distinction between home and school life, and has confused education with passing on information. But this transformation could only take place because for a long time now education has been built on sand. Now that those weak foundations have been swept aside, as a society we do not have coherent or even agreed ideas on what should replace them…

Read the full article on Spiked.

Reflecting on the shift to online learning during the pandemic, Education Forum founder Dennis Hayes argues that important arguments around online learning, face-to-face teaching, and the importance of education itself have still to be won.

If someone had said back in 2019 that most university teaching could go online within a few months, no one would have believed it. They would have been told that it would take years for academics and universities to prepare.

The pandemic of 2020 showed that it was possible to move teaching online fast. A pragmatic decision made necessary by a government lockdown changed university teaching almost overnight.

Some excellent university technicians facilitated huge technical changes to teaching. This was very impressive, but it was merely a technical shift that had no basis in professional or curricula development. The argument for online learning had not been won.

A few universities went ‘online only’, but others went for a blended approach. The blended universities recognised that students wanted face-to-face teaching. But this was another pragmatic decision aimed at keeping students and avoiding the conflicts that erupted over fees and accommodation costs at the online-only universities.

The blended approach worked, even if it meant only three hours on campus each week and ended only when the government imposed further lockdowns, but it had no basis in professional or curricula approaches. The argument for face-to-face teaching had not been won

Continue reading on University World News.

The experience of lockdown learning provides an opportunity to reclaim education from ‘teaching to the test’, argues Shirley Lawes.

The closing of schools to the majority of pupils during the periods of lockdown and the adoption of online learning have presented huge challenges to teachers who have had little or no experience of this teaching medium. As if that wasn’t enough to deal with, the cancellation of external examinations both last and probably this coming year too, has called into question the raison d’être of education. The effects of Covid disruption have exposed the weaknesses and fragility of our education system. The fear engendered by the Covid-19 virus throughout society, is such that young people’s futures are seen by some as being irreparably damaged and in peril. Our education system has indeed been challenged to a similar extent as our health service and despite the valiant efforts of teachers and health workers alike, the institutions of state education and health have been found wanting.

In education, there is a tendency to want to get back to ‘the way things were’, but the clock can never be turned back and before we panic ourselves into setting up ‘cramming’ sessions to ‘cover’ the curriculum, perhaps now is a unique opportunity to take stock, examine ourselves as education professionals and ask some fundamental questions about the future we want for education and how we might set about achieving it.

I am not a Primary specialist, so I hesitate to comment on this sector, but it does seem that there has been an increasing tendency to ‘cover’ ever-expanding curriculum content in order to ‘tick the boxes’. In the meantime, the expert teaching required to develop young learners’ foundational conceptual understanding of subject knowledge is given scant attention.

The culture of Secondary Schools has changed considerably over the last twenty years or so towards a more ‘business’ orientated organisation and ethos. The work of the teacher has been closely prescribed as part of an attempt to establish more consistency in the overall quality of education. The drive to ‘raise standards’ has arguably resulted in a progressive narrowing down of the secondary curriculum, particularly at Key Stage 4, in order to focus on exam preparation. The charge of ‘teaching to the test’ is a criticism often heard of teachers anxious to ensure learners are well-prepared for their exams, but in the process, the educational rather than credential value of school subjects has been lost. As many schools have prioritised examination success over curriculum and pedagogic experimentation, subject curricula seem set in stone or changed at the whim of political and social fashion. Neither option addresses the important epistemological and ethical questions associated with the curriculum, and more broadly, teaching, that have been ignored for too long.

Teachers often feel that they have little freedom to explore their subject discipline with learners. Secondary school teachers no longer teach a body of subject knowledge that is deemed worthwhile for its own sake, but ‘cover’ curriculum content that is, even at KS3, aimed narrowly at fulfilling examination requirements. ‘Teaching to the test’ is not just a critical slogan, it is now the accepted norm in many, perhaps most state schools. However much individual teachers might eschew the narrow focus on selecting and teaching subject knowledge to pass exams, very few have the confidence or professional knowledge to step outside the current educational straitjacket.

Teachers who have been trained as technicists struggle when they are suddenly required to exercise professional autonomy and, dare I say it, ‘pedagogical imagination’ as we have seen when we consider how challenging it has been to grapple with the demands of online learning. We should seize the current situation as an opportunity in all subject areas to climb through the barbed wire and to reconsider fundamentally what, in practice, it is important to teach and why. The absence of exams is not a disaster; it offers a temporary opportunity for a new beginning. It took a pandemic for scientists to develop a vaccine in record time, but they did it. Are educators up for their own particular challenge?

How, at this critical juncture, might we begin to re-evaluate and possibly revise our vision of education? The last ten months’ experience of virtual school closure could be a break from the past that calls into question many aspects of teaching, learning and curriculum content. Besides many problems, this novel experience has thrown up opportunities to reflect upon and re-think the ‘normal’; to re-evaluate objectively what, how and why we teach what we teach and to think beyond prescribed content and examination specifications. The on-line teaching experience has been a stark contrast to classroom teaching in relation to the knowledge content of our subject curriculum as well as the way we teach. But do teachers really just want this nightmare to be over and to return asap to the way things were?

Let’s take a step back, and ask some essential questions about education, like what should be taught in schools? Why should it be taught? To whom should it be taught? What does it mean to be an educated person? How might we move away from the immediate, instrumental concerns of outcomes and exam results and begin to take more of a ‘long view’ of education? Examination success is undoubtedly important but the curriculum should provide an enriched experience of subjects that seeks to inspire young people and enliven their curiosity to understand the world through knowledge. How schools are reconstituted after the pandemic is a vitally important discussion to be had now so that rather than scurrying around trying to make-do and mend, we can create a new vision and plan for a future education system that will more than compensate for the losses caused by Covid.

Shirley Lawes is a member of the AoI Education Forum Committee. She is a PhD research supervisor at UCL Institute of Education, a former Modern Foreign Languages teacher educator and is a Chevalier dans L’Ordre des Palmes Académiques.

The teaching establishment is livid that poor children are coming to school expecting an education, writes the Education Forum’s Gareth Sturdy in Spiked.

The third national lockdown is starting to reveal the depth of the teaching establishment’s elitism towards the education of poor children.

It took only three days of schools being closed to most pupils before headteachers and teaching unions began to express their horror at the number of poor kids turning up at the school gates because it is their only chance of getting an education…

Read the full article on Spiked.

In the Education Forum’s column for Teach Secondary magazine, Alka Sehgal Cuthbert calls for a return to educational basics, and a more nuanced critique of optimistic dreams concerning our gleaming, edtech-powered future.

In education, those who do the actual hard work of education, as opposed to the host of ancillary work that enables and supports it, are the teachers and pupils. Technology can certainly bring useful things to education, but there’s nothing intrinsically educational about technology itself per se.

As a young person in the aforementioned video points out, the same technology can be used to play games, pursue hobbies and conduct everyday communications, as well as for educational purposes. It follows, then, that for any technology to be of actual use in the classroom, the ‘education’ side of the equation has to be firmly in place first, so that the technology’s use is distinctively educational.

And here’s the rub – few people among the ranks of politicians, policy makers and academics (and sadly, many teachers) possess a strong enough conception of what education is and what it needs to flourish.

Read the whole article on Teachwire

Lockdown is easing and a phased return to school has tentatively begun, but when children walk through the school gates they’re entering a changed environment, with classes taught in protective ‘bubbles’ of 15, socially distanced play, and many everyday aspects of school life restricted. The UK government has postponed the full return of primary school children till at least September and, in Scotland, Education Secretary John Swinney has suggested that a ‘blended learning’ model, with children in school for as little as one day a week, may be required for the whole of the next academic year. The prospect of a return to education as we know it seems to be receding ever further into the future.

For this special podcast, Harley Richardson of the Academy of Ideas Education Forum speaks to Liz Cole, co-founder of UsForThem, a new parent-led campaign to ‘get schools back to normal’, and finds out why they think social distancing in schools is both unnecessary and harmful.