With the current lock-down situation affecting education systems worldwide, there has been much talk about the most effective way to support students, ensure some semblance of educational normality and there has also been an overnight shift to remote learning, too. My own school has elected to use Microsoft Teams and the adaptation from staff and students alike to the new normal has been relatively good, given the circumstances. But, we all know that this situation-however long it might go on for-is a temporary one and the eventual return to school will present logistical challenges.
I caught about ten minutes of last night’s Newsnight on the BBC and they were discussing when schools might go back and what it might look like, as well as concerns over an ‘attainment gap’ between those students with stable home lives, good internet access etc and those without some or all of these factors. With the best will in the world, and even in the most uniform of school cohorts, there will be inevitable gaps and differences in how much home learning has successfully taken place. So how do schools adapt to this? Time is a very valuable commodity in the teaching profession, as it is in other fields, and I think that will become more apparent than ever when we finally go back to work. How do we ensure that catch-up takes place over the long-term that means any gap in learning experience during this period of school closure is ultimately closed? I think we need a range of possible solutions, that can be considered in view of their merits and deficiencies and then the best course of action decided upon. One possible way forward occurred to me earlier today-I am not saying it is the best course of action and as with any possible option it would present its own myriad logistical challenges, but it is one route and as mentioned above, I think we need a range of options to pick from at this time.
So what is it? Well, we in the northern hemisphere traditionally have a September-July academic year. In the southern hemisphere, where many educational systems are post-colonial ones, influenced by the system established during times of empire (be it British, Spanish, Portuguese etc) they run an academic year on a linear basis in line with the calendar year to account for the inverse nature of seasons to those of the north, typically running an academic year from February-December (so, for example, Christmas traditionally marks the start of the summer holidays). Once we return to work in the UK (and other northern hemisphere nations), there will be an inevitable period of consolidation and catch-up, not to mention the process of readjusting to school norms and routines (this will be a big one). If the 2020-21 academic year is scheduled to still go ahead in September, even with the earliest mooted return date of early June, this would leave little time to get back on an even keel before the current 2019-20 school year ends. If that was the case, would the summer holiday be a truncated one to allow for catch-up time before a rapid re-start for the new academic year? (remember, currently students and staff are still working from home, albeit quite differently to how they normally might do-if the lock-down were to be lifted by August would families want to holiday, however locally/see relatives and friends? It might not be an economic or academic factor, but it is a life one and I would argue a mental health issue, too). Here’s my suggestion: why don’t we consider the merits of the linear academic year as a way out of this impasse?
Let’s say that June would be a ‘rapid re-start’ that would see schools chasing their own tails to get students back on track, but simply shutting down until September and then starting up a brand new academic year would leave a layer of catch-up/revision of topics covered via home learning on top of the content needed to be covered in the new academic year-to simply run an extensive plethora of additional classes, holiday and weekend catch-up (and I am one of many, many teachers who has put on additional sessions in the past, I’m not allergic to doing such extras when truly needed) runs the risk of backfire due to collective fatigue setting in. How, instead, might extending the current academic year until the end of 2020 be of practical use to the education system?
Well, for a start I cannot see secondary schools returning en masse, all at the same time, from a situation of total lock-down. For that to happen, the risk of Covid-19 passing through the school population would have to be as close to zero as possible. It’s often said by lock-down sceptics that as younger people run a lower risk of suffering from the virus, that therefore what’s the problem with schools re-opening? For a start, you have a large body of teachers, support staff, caretakers, canteen staff, office personnel and pastoral staff (plus others) who are as susceptible to the virus as any other adult. In addition, that student body almost all with live with and/or come into contact parents, grandparents and extended family. If the virus wasn’t close to total suppression, you are looking at a second wave spreading like wildfire through that wider population. So let’s say, as appears likely, lock-down will be gradually lifted and, as some reports have suggested, there will be a phased return to schools. This strikes me as wise; schools are highly social environments-maintaining social distancing on the corridors, in the classroom and even on the yard is an extreme challenge in the event of a full return. I think some kind of shift system of different students coming in on different days could enable some measure of successful social distancing to take place-I don’t know the finer particulars of how that would be worked out and even that would have to be in a very-low-risk-of-contracting-the-virus scenario, but again to reiterate I think that that would be preferable to getting everybody back in, overnight and undoing all the good work undertaken so far to minimise the danger.
A switch to a linear year would buy at this moment, that most precious of all commodities in the academic world (along with resources and space): time. With classes coming in part-time, the pace of learning could be slowed down (so, in effect, the same amount of learning would be taking place per lesson), but there would also arguably be the time for the re-teach and revision that can so successfully cement the learning process. It would also provide the Department of Education and schools valuable time to plan ahead for a 2021 academic year, so as to make it as smooth and successful a year as possible.
Then, there is the factor of current Year 11 and 13 students, who have seen with the cancellation of their exams their GCSE and A-Level studies curtailed. An extensive nation-wide process of grade calculation has been taking place and the results will be decided upon and disseminated some time in the summer months. For those students looking to take re-sits in the autumn, this potential scenario could free up valuable time to organise the logistics of such exams and put on re-sit/revision classes if needed.
This shift would also require shifting the school holidays about a bit, but that’s not insurmountable and might even prove popular and beneficial in the long-run, if done sensitively and well (I don’t know about any other colleagues, but I find autumn and spring the best times for productivity in schools, with the height of summer and winter being the least so).
Hopefully all of the above has provided some food for thought. I’d be interested to know what others think-as I’ve already stated, I don’t think this is necessarily the solution to a successful return to normality in schools, but it is one approach-and I think we should entertain a range of possibilities in order to arrive at the right one.