Summer schooling? Wales’ golden opportunity to do things differently

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A fortnight ago and at the university’s request, I wrote an article considering the future makeup of education in Wales.

This of course included taking an informed stab at the possible ramifications for schools – and the different scenarios through which our classrooms could begin opening to larger groups of pupils.

Aside from the obvious focus on pupil and staff welfare, I suggested schools could be given licence to work with universities and colleges to make best use of the high-tech lecture theatres and resources sitting idle across the country.

For if social distancing dictates that schools aren’t big enough to accommodate desired numbers of learners, the acquisition of specialist learning spaces sitting dormant is, in my view, a possibility worth pursuing.

So too was the slightly more radical suggestion that if a reopening of schools in June was considered too soon and not in the best interests of the wider population, we may have to look more creatively at the summer holiday period – and what tweaks could be made to negate learning time lost to pupils.

For example, could we manufacture a way in which school holidays could be brought forward in order to accommodate certain year groups before September?

Pupils in Year Six who are preparing for secondary school, as well as those preparing for GCSEs and A-levels, were foremost in my mind.

Now I can understood fully how that might come across to some – what do I know, right?

I haven’t had to operate a hub for the past 10 weeks, or ring in daily calls to vulnerable pupils stuck at home.

Neither have I knocked on doors, dropped off iPads, or spent many hundreds of miles away from my own family to take care of others’ (you know who you are).

No, I fully appreciate that I don’t know the half of it – and I can’t begin to imagine what some of my friends and colleagues in schools have had to endure these past few months.

But I’m sure all would agree that there is nothing we shouldn’t consider in order to give some of our pupils in most need more time in the classroom.

Indeed, I am genuinely surprised at how little the possibility has been talked about, anywhere in the UK.

Granted, any change to term times in Scotland and Northern Ireland would not be as ground-breaking or difficult to manage, given schools there close earlier for the summer, regardless.

But there has, to my knowledge, been little discussion publicly about the possibility of bringing summer holidays forward in England and Wales.

That was until Friday evening, when it was revealed by one Welsh education union that such discussions had in fact taken place.

Thinking outside the box

In a lengthy statement posted online, David Evans, Wales Secretary of the National Education Union, announced that a number of different options for the reopening of schools had been tabled by the Welsh Government.

The standout idea, described by the union leader as ‘the most radical’, was that schools would officially close on or around June 19 and return the week commencing August 3.

The Autumn term would therefore begin several weeks earlier than normal and be structured so that pupils would have regular week-long intervals to limit undue pressures on both them and the schools system more generally.

For me, the fact that such an approach had been considered was tremendously heartening and I commend the Welsh Government and unions for their ingenuity and willingness to think outside the box in the best interests of our learners.

That said, it was equally disappointing to read that the August plan had been shelved within a matter of days owing to ‘significant issues’.

It was not immediately clear from the union’s correspondence what these issues were, but I have since talked through with teacher colleagues some of the possible pitfalls surrounding the project.

First, it was suggested that given the unprecedented stresses and strains of education in lockdown, many teachers were at breaking point and in desperate need of some quality time off to rest and recuperate.

This, of course, is absolutely necessary and why all school staff must be entitled to their full quota of summer holiday time, regardless of where in Wales they work.

There is certainly no suggestion that teachers should have their well-earned time off taken from them – by goodness, they need a break more than most.

But assuming a level of flexibility is allowed, I’m sure many in the profession would be amenable to rearranging existing timetables and negotiating pre-booked holiday time, given the current lack of travel options.

Now I recognise fully that this would not work for everyone, particularly those co-ordinating days off with partners and wider family, and so schools would need a degree of autonomy to make decisions on a needs basis.

Pre-existing arrangements would have to be honoured.

But one assumes that even if schools were to return more formally in August (let’s not forget hubs have been operating throughout the course of the pandemic), they would likely do so on a reduced intake, meaning not all teachers would be required in school at any given time, whatever happens.

It would be up to school leaders to devise their own rota systems, based on pupil numbers and availability of staff.

20-week Autumn term

The same would apply to schools straddling Offa’s Dyke – families working on either side of the border would need some sort of dispensation to adapt their working patterns.

The fact that term times are already different across England and Wales makes this a challenge that can, with a fair wind, be overcome.

Another apparent issue relates to the length of the Autumn term, which could last up to 20 weeks on the basis of what’s been discussed.

Clearly, a term of this size would need to be chunked so as to give everyone – school staff, pupils and parents – opportunity to down tools and recharge.

Again, assuming not all pupils are in school at the same time, an extended or indeed multiple half terms could be introduced; finer, yet no less important detail that would need ironing out.

The time schools would need to prepare for such changes is another important factor, and I take for granted that staff would be given sufficient lead-in before relaunch.

Contractual issues are, perhaps, one of the biggest obstacles to an August return and granted, time to drum up new working arrangements is a factor, but nothing is insurmountable in this time of great crisis.

We owe it to our learners to explore any and every way of getting all schools back up and running as soon as is practically possible.

There is absolutely no doubting that our battle against coronavirus has been tremendously challenging for us all, and no-one is immune to its devastating impact.

The daily death toll is horrendous, people’s mental health and wellbeing is of major concern and our ailing economy makes redundancy a realistic prospect for almost everyone.

We have all made personal sacrifices for the common good, and I am in awe of the dedication and commitment to the national cause being shown daily by our key workers (which absolutely includes school staff).

But I fear that the next big crisis to face our nation will be educational – for the longer children are away from the classroom, the less likely many are to return.

This was the sombre observation made recently by a headteacher working in one of Wales’ most deprived communities – and his words should be a warning to us all.

The sad reality is that some children will have now gone 10 weeks and counting with no access to online learning, and there is little doubt that those from more deprived backgrounds will have fallen further behind their more affluent peers.

That is why talk of a ‘lost generation’ is, in my view, entirely legitimate however unpalatable.

Allied to this, there are also scientific reasons for wanting to squeeze in as much face-to-face teaching as possible in the next few months.

If fears of a second spike in transmissions are to be believed (with experts predicting a high probability), then it would make sense to make the most of the fair weather and space outdoors while we can.

Golden opportunity missed

As a form of compromise on the August plan, it appears as though the possibility of the summer term being extended by a week, with autumn half-term being extended to compensate, is more of a runner.

But for me, this is neither here nor there and if we choose to go down this road as an alternative, we’ve missed a golden opportunity to effect meaningful change.

So much has been said and written about our return to the ‘new normal’ these past few months, and the need to ‘reimagine’ education for a post-COVID world.

Yet when presented with the chance to radically rethink the rhythm of the school year, I’m disappointed that we’ve kicked it so quickly into the long grass (a disappointment shared by a number of teachers who have contacted me since).

I’ve spent much of my professional career asking questions of the Welsh Government, least not during the current crisis. It was, and remains, integral to my working life.

But as quick as one is to criticise and object, one must be prepared to offer credit where it’s due – and I applaud the Welsh Government’s considering of all options, however audacious.

Now more than ever, we need to open our minds to the possibilities that exist and look for creative solutions to the myriad of problems we face.

Over the course of devolution, Wales has, on occasion, been guilty of doing differently for the sake of being different.

And more recently, the Welsh Government has been accused of following England’s lead in its relaxing of lockdown measures – charges that may or may not be true.

But in Operation August we had a chance to do something truly innovative for all the right reasons.

Who knows, restructuring our term times might never have worked – and we might have reverted quickly to type if plans started to unravel.

But it would have been bold, courageous and with learners absolutely at its heart.

Wales could have left an indelible mark, and shown colleagues in England the way.

I just hope we don’t regret letting the opportunity pass us by.

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