Who needs to catch up?

My children received their school reports today. Listed in the usual order of academic subjects, they present neatly calibrated effort and attainment grades for this past half term. I applaud my children’s teachers for their herculean efforts in ensuring continuity of learning – they really have shown such determination to maintain ‘business as usual’ against all the odds. But I have to say that the grades in front of me don’t give an accurate account of my children’s growth this past year. That is not the fault of their teachers; academic reports like these are from a different era.

Over the last twelve months, our nation’s school pupils have sat alongside their parents and carers, as equal observers, watching the news and trying to process and assimilate horrifying headlines that would not have been believable twelve months ago. Our children have steered their way through uncharted waters, learning as they go, adapting, pivoting and accommodating, and forever curbing their expectations whilst reigning in their hopes.

They have developed resilience, resourcefulness, digital literacy skills, creativity, self-discipline, self-sufficiency, self-restraint, self-regulation and, above all, they have learned to be patient. Oh, so patient.

They have found their own routines and rituals to stay positive. They have developed the self-motivation required to get out of bed and shuffle to their ‘classroom’ two steps away. They have battled frustration, disappointment, loneliness, anxiety, disorientation, boredom and monotony – and they have won.

They are not the ‘lost generation’, sentenced to a life of catch up; they are superheroes, and they will be the cultural architects of a new world. They have developed new skills, attitudes and behaviours – and not to mention some reprioritised values – that will bring them success in the new paradigms in which we will live, learn, work and socialise, post-pandemic.

The question is: is our education system ready for their return? Is it ready to review its own values and priorities now? The teachers are ready, of course they are! They have worked tirelessly to maintain a continuity of learning and parity of provision this past year. Teachers across the land have gone above and beyond to stay in contact with their students, to teach, support and care for them – to keep the learning going, sometimes in school, oftentimes remotely at home – and in many cases juggling both synchronously. And they will be so ready to see them all again in person, when they will praise them and credit them for how much they have grown, physically, mentally and emotionally. They will know only too well of the hardships their pupils have endured and the resilience they have shown to make it to the other side, and they will value their emotional wellbeing and their self-worth more than ever.

Will these young, brave superheroes view school differently when they return to its routines and customs? Will they come to see how the traditional criteria against which they were being measured is inadequate now? I think they will. The genie is out of the bottle.

I think they will recognise what many of us have known for a long time: that the dominant practices and methods of measurement are anachronistic, ‘academic’. In prioritising the visible, measurable attainment and progress of our students – largely in academic disciplines – have we failed to recognise and comment meaningfully on the invisible and immeasurable growth they have made, in school, in home, in life?

The culture of a school, with its customs, norms and values, will seem smaller now, whilst every member of its community will have grown – in ways that will not be visible if we persist in using the traditional instruments of calibrating, sorting and ranking. Nothing stunts growth more than sorting and ranking by narrow criteria, and how schools adapt to stay relevant now will define not only our children’s futures, but the future of school itself. We have such an opportunity to create a new culture, with new assumptions, new values and new customs and norms that shape how we do things in school.

For one hundred and fifty years, since Forster’s Elementary Education Act, school has delivered an assembly line of learning, built on a factory approach of mass production, standardisation and quality control. The 1870 Act codified and assumed Crown responsibility for education. It mandated inspectors to hold schools accountable for their teaching of reading, writing and arithmetic. And it was a benevolent act, certainly: it brought children out of workhouses and lowly paid jobs they were much too young to be doing. It gave them an education, an opportunity to develop white collar skills, a chance to better themselves, to climb out of poverty in many cases; just as it continues to improve the life chances of students today, bringing them an academic education that can open doors and bring prosperity (notwithstanding I have always championed vocational alternatives too).

But it is now undeniably true that the dominant three Rs are neither delivering the premium skills required by today’s employers, nor are they doing justice to the myriad ways in which children are smart, and the innate potential they possess. Improving literacy and numeracy may have been the ultimate aim in 1870, creating a more educated workforce for a more prosperous economy, but new skills are required now – and new attitudes too. Qualities and capacities like problem-solving, creativity, resourcefulness, resilience – these are highly-prized and they are precisely what our children have been developing during this past year, because they have had to.

I am optimistic about the future. What a child shows she knows in an exam was once held to be an accurate measure of her actual learning ability, but now this has to change – it would be risible to suggest otherwise, given how much our children have grown and matured this year, without exams. School leavers once defined themselves by their academic grades alone, but this will change too. They will know, I hope, that they are so much more than their grades, they are bigger, stronger. This cycle, this culture, will now be revealed for the self-limiting, self-fulfilling myth that it always was. You cannot capture a child’s growth – and education should be about growth – in an academic school report focused predominantly on their measurable efforts and attainment (compliance and knowledge retention). I am convinced that we will move from this myopic view of attainment and progress, to broaden the way in which we view the ‘whole child’ in the future. And this is such an exciting prospect, to build a new culture of growth, of whole development, recognizing the importance of the very qualities that have brought our children through this unsettling chapter in all of our lives.

The invisible, immeasurable attitudes and behaviours children will have developed by themselves during this uniquely challenging year must be seen and appreciated in full technicolor now, for they are the very qualities they will need in the new world – a world in which school itself now needs to catch up.

And catch up it must, because the children returning to school deserve something new.



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