The reopening of schools and colleges in England, Wales and Northern Ireland this month has been called a pivotal moment in the pandemic. After lockdown and the summer holiday, children are going back into full-time education in a school setting for the first time in almost six months. With the exam results debacle not yet a distant memory, the successful return of education will be important for the government. Yet, reports have indicated that cases of the virus have affected several schools across the country already - leaving hundreds of students in isolation and school premises shut for intense cleaning.
Thinking back to debates during the summer months, it was interesting to read the Children’s Commissioner for England’s recommendations for putting children first and planning for future lockdowns with children at the heart. Within her briefing, Anne Longfield OBE discussed how every child has a fundamental right to education and how education should be prioritised above all other sectors when it comes to protection.
Her briefing was strong and recommendations fair, but she also suggested that closing schools should be a last resort. With the pandemic still ongoing and the future still so uncertain, it seems clear to me that persevering with schools opening in the traditional sense is not the answer. On top of this, the perspective of children themselves has been missed entirely, despite the Commissioner herself advising that their perspectives must be better reflected in scientific and public health advice moving forward. This led me to wonder why we are still so convinced that children being physically being present in school between the hours of 9am and 3pm, five days a week, is still the only way in which they can access a great education?
Predicting that further disruption would be likely post-lockdown, we wanted to understand the perspectives of school pupils in Britain within the new context of the pandemic. We wanted to understand how children had experienced remote learning over the course of lockdown and what they would like from education moving forward, to inform our business and help our customers implement technology in the right way for pupils.
The results were extremely interesting; in asking over 500 pupils aged 10-18 for their opinions, we discovered that almost three quarters (73%) of these children would like more flexible learning options when they return to school. Children now want to be able to exercise some control over when and where they learn - if a child feels they will be safer and more productive learning at home, they feel they should be allowed to do this without any detriment to their education. Over a third said that they simply like the choice that more flexibility would provide; allowing them to learn in a way that best suits them and their needs on any given day. Over half (53%) said they would now welcome the idea of a ‘virtual open school’ – where they can learn through online courses and lessons alongside attending traditional lessons.
What was also interesting to learn was that a significant percentage of pupils demonstrated awareness of the benefits of a more flexible learning environment. 42% said that they now want to be able to balance learning with other activities that make them happy – like spending time with family or devoting more time to an interest or hobby. Although traditional school is indeed important for many reasons - including for building relationships and setting a routine - it is also true that many children have thrived while being home-schooled and have been happier with this during recent difficult times. This is particularly important at the moment, especially given that readiness to learn and wellbeing are so closely linked.
As with enterprise, education has had to fast-track its digital transformation and ensure remote working/learning is feasible for everyone. This has led to the development of several innovative remote learning platforms and has given parents, teachers and pupils a host of valuable new digital skills. It has also allowed children and teachers to benefit from the flexibility that enterprise enjoys – like working during hours that suit them and balancing responsibilities with other activities that contribute to wellbeing. These have been positive adjustments and it would be a shame to abandon this progression completely in favour of keeping school gates open.
So, with younger generations driving a more flexible future there’s clear need for more investment in helping schools implement more flexible options so that disruption can be kept to a minimum as the country further adjusts to the pandemic. Schools need to be given more support to enable them function just as well – if not better – remotely. With these provisions in place, there would be a lot less pressure on the education system to keep school doors open and would give children access to a great education wherever and whenever they need it. It will be interesting to see which schools continue making strides towards a more flexible future, something that will undoubtedly be positive for the education system and pupils of the pandemic.
Atif Mahmood, CEO, Teacherly