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Let’s talk about COVID-19.

As schools go back in September 2021, to the closest version of normal since March 2020, it’s important to reflect on how far from that normal we have come. 17 months of disrupted education for our children spans two academic years; children can’t just pick up where they left off, if they did they would go back into the year group they were pre-pandemic. Yes, education has been provided during time away from school and, when in school, measures have been in place to ensure that education can continue safely. Everyone has done their best given the ongoing challenging circumstances and we breathe a collective sigh of relief as the return to familiarity draws near. Near for the adults in school that is, well those who have been teaching for more than two years, but not for the children.

The pandemic did not arrest their ongoing growth and development. Whilst staff resume former ways of practice, routines and systems, we can’t expect children to automatically do the same. Their point of reference is two school years of development ago.

When it comes to the curriculum there has been talk about “catch up” and “gaps”. If we consider the curriculum as being the full experience that school has to offer to a growing child then yes, there is bound to be a consequence on psychological development due to social isolation for periods of time, particularly for young people for whom school and peers play such an integral role. When it comes to covering content, the impact of the pandemic on exams has already been seen in 2020, 2021 and we wait alongside Year 11 to see how it will affect them in 2022. If there has ever been a time to reflect on the purpose of the curriculum it is now. Time to cover everything that needs to be covered has always been paramount, even before the pandemic.

When everything that is taught is important, decisions need to be made about what is most important so the rest can be left out. Subjects need to be clear, therefore, about what the “big ideas” of their subject are, and in doing so they provide themselves with a structure to organise their curriculum. Then, only material, including experiences, that contribute to developing students’ understanding of these “big ideas” is to be taught. By doing this, students really can achieve more by doing less as the connectivity of the whole curriculum becomes visible. This was important before the pandemic and it is even more important now, if the education system wants to be an exemplar for the resilience we tell students is an essential life skill.

Have we acknowledged that Years 9, 10 and 11 will be leading the charge for “school as normal” on their return in September 2021?

Consider a normal September in a pre-pandemic secondary school; apart from a few students joining the school in other year groups, it is Year 7 en masse that join the school as the new comers. They need to learn the routines that make the school function efficiently and as a rule, these new students settle in quickly. They are educated in the customs and practice of the school as it functions around them. But in September 2021, when it comes to the “functions around them,” who is it that will be doing the functioning?

The longest serving students to have experienced “normal” school will be Year 11 having experienced an uninterrupted run at education until the spring term of their Year 9. It falls to these students to remember the ways of “normal” school to educate the newcomers, albeit their experience of “normal” as it was in Year 9 … who has shown them how Year 11 functions? There has been a lack of “normal” Year 11 in school since March 2020 to learn from; the last time any students witnessed a Year 11 cohort sitting formal exams was back in the summer of 2019. This was when the cohort due to take their exams in 2022 were in Year 8. The implicit lessons that students learn from each other have not been there and we need to be mindful that we don’t just expect students to know how to conduct themselves.

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