On what I would like to say to the education secretary

I never usually write political blogs, and this one isn’t, not really. I would be writing the same whoever was in power. My thoughts come from the fact I was a teacher for quite a few years, and a counsellor for even more. More importantly, they come from watching my children, and now my grandchildren, go through the school system.

Much of the language around the current educational challenges arising from Covid seems to me to be content-driven. The talk is of ‘lost learning’, implying the loss is something quantifiable which can be replaced simply by time – longer days, shorter holidays. None of this recognises the already huge toll on teachers of teaching the children of key workers whilst also providing online learning (very different to prepare than in-person teaching) as well as trying to keep in contact with children through Zoom times and being mindful of the very different ways their pupils will be responding and their varied circumstances.

So here are some of the things I would like to say…most certainly not an exhaustive list and I am sure other things will occur to me as I continue to reflect. In no particular order, here goes…

It’s not about content, it is about a love of learning A National Curriculum, whatever its content, implies a body of knowledge that needs to be imparted. Yet surely it is not that simple? Yes, there are certain key skills, notably reading, which are essential. But the reality is I remember little of what I learnt at school. What I was given (with varying degrees of deliberateness) was the desire to learn, to delve into things that interest me, and a love of words. If we enjoy learning, we will learn, both during our formal education and in the years beyond. If we don’t, if it is dry and lifeless and enslaved by rules, we may lose the inquisitiveness, the desire to explore, every child is born with.

It’s not about content, it is about wonder Yesterday my precious grandchildren spent 10 minutes watching a fox in our garden. If I had cared about content, there was so much I could have said, about the lifespan of foxes, their diet, the difference between urban and forest foxes. We did briefly touch on the latter over tea, but at the time I just wanted them to enjoy the experience, the joy of being a few feet away from a wild animal. Concentrating on content so easily spoils our opportunity too simply be in the moment and marvel. Let’s not be too quick to explain to our children until we have first let them be intrigued and amazed.

It’s not about content, it is about using parents’ expertise It is parents who best understand both their child and how this last year has impacted them. Teachers try hard to keep up the communication, but time they have with parents is limited. There needs to be much more opportunity to draw on the knowledge parents have. What is it that really interests their child? Is the behaviour which the teacher risks seeing as disruptive in fact a sign of anxiety or stress? What are the strategies which might work for many children but which a mother or father knows would be crushing to their particular child? Can more space be given for teachers to have much more time with parents, not just for parents’ evenings (which are often more about teachers telling parents, important but only half the story), or when there are issues, but as a matter of normal practice?

It is not about content, it is about access No parent in these last months will have been home schooling thirty children. With class sizes that big, even the most skilled of teachers can only hope to really aim at the middle. Extension work for brighter children will not really address their challenges (yes, I mean challenges) and the help for children who struggle with school as it currently is because of additional needs is woefully inadequate. Yes, provision varies, but for many there is simply not the help they need. Too long is taken to assess their difficulties and the resulting help insufficient. Once a child’s confidence has been damaged by the realisation that they do not see the world like others, or find impossible something a classmate does with ease, it is very difficult to rebuild, to convince them that is it not what they do not have or cannot do that defines them. A friend of mine told me about a school in another part of the country which took children who had been excluded on behavioural grounds. In almost every case the child had additional needs which had not been addressed. When these were identified and help given, the behaviour resolved.

It is not about content, it is about mental and emotional well-being I had a close friend, no longer with us, who was born in the war years. He traced his well-disguised struggles with anxiety to being born in the war, his foundational early years surrounded by the natural fear around him, not just in his home but in society. Our children have experienced by osmosis the national and local concern, bewilderment and shock which has impacted us all. This may take a long time to emerge and may not do so in the most obvious of ways. Most, if not all, of the aspects of my school years which impacted me long term were in the emotional and psychological realm, not the academic. This must be, I believe, the primary focus of thinking and action in these next few years.

Our schools and our childrens’ education is absolutely vital. It is in need of overhaul and significant investment not just if we are to address the fallout from this last year but also if we are to be realistic about the fault lines which were already appearing after decades of failing to realise that our children are not just our future, and the future of science, the NHS, carers etc and most importantly well rounded and kind members of society, but are our present too.

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