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Sian Griffiths, Education Editor of The Sunday Times, plots the extraordinary events of the last six months and muses on the likely ramifications for the education of our children in the years to come.

When children go back to school this autumn they are in for a big surprise. Across the nation headteachers have been forced by the coronavirus crisis to get inventive. “The impact of the pandemic on school fees and operations has thrown normality to the wind,” sums up Julie Robinson, CEO of the Independent Schools Council (ISC). “Given that nobody foresaw this there was no model, so schools have had to create a whole new model from scratch.”

Some schools will run temperature checks on children and staff, most will keep a supply of face masks for emergencies. There will be handwashing drills and copious supplies of hand sanitiser in classrooms. In primary schools at least, pupils will be grouped into “bubbles” and will stay with a single teacher throughout the school day, not mixing with other youngsters, to limit the risk of coronavirus infections.

There are new plans for sport too and for music lessons. Many schools are planning to replace the traditional winter sports programme. Out goes rugby, the sport usually played by pupils in the autumn and winter months; in come the summer pursuits of cricket, athletics and tennis, in which it is easier to socially distance. “We’ll have our orchestra,” says Suzie Longstaff, Head at Putney High School – “but there will be a lot of chamber music played”.

Schools in England in the next academic year face extraordinary challenges after the government closed them in March 2020 as the country went into lockdown because of the coronavirus crisis. Millions of pupils have been home educated for months, with many schools offering online lessons for youngsters to complete under the supervision of their parents.

Northwood School’s Marketing & Communications Head Ali Bucknall flags up the contrasting emotions that parents felt during this period. “It was so contentious,” she says. “We had so many letters praising us but also anger about why there were no live lessons seeing as they were paying for them”.

And there’s the rub. The amount of work set for children to do at home varied wildly from a full timetable of lessons to just one hour a day, and some say the pandemic has highlighted the stark contrast between what an independent school and a state school offered pupils.

A recent poll by a local Trust revealed that two-thirds of children had not engaged in online lessons at all during the first month of lockdown, with pupils at private schools more than twice as likely to receive daily online tuition as their state educated peers. The extent of the provision has depended on the ability of teachers to prepare and distribute work as well as their technological capabilities.

The upside is that schools have had to develop digital learning at a fast pace. “Before all this, there were reports of an ageing teaching force who were not the keenest on technology, but look now at all the possibilities,” says ISC’s Robinson. “It’s exciting and there are some really positive stories.”

“It’s a good time to think differently and question old norms,” says Putney’s Longstaff. From September 2020, according to the government, children are expected to go back to school “five days a week”. Many headteachers, however, are drawing up a “Plan B”. For many that involves continuing online lessons for some pupils in case there is a second spike in infection rates and schools are closed again, either locally – as in Leicester in July – or nationally.

Sebastian Hepher, Principal of Eaton Square Schools, is planning to have different year groups in at different times if the bubbles continue. “We’ll have a two-week cycle rotation with say, Year 3 in on Monday to Wednesday in Week One and on Thursday and Friday for Week Two.”

Windlesham has a different model. “We’re planning bubbles by year groups,” says Lucy Thornton, Head of Marketing & Admissions, “but we want business as usual in September.”

At Putney High School Longstaff is developing two models, “One sees everyone going back full time, and another is a hybrid model which means pupils come in on a rota basis. In the same way that Cambridge has gone to online lectures, we are developing an online learning system that can supplement what we do in schools. In some ways it is very exciting if technology is the future.

“Most heads think we will be back as normal in 2020/2021 but my money is on a hybrid model. I think January could be an issue, we could see a second wave of the virus then,” she says.

At Whitgift School Headmaster Chris Ramsey agrees. “There will certainly be a place for a blend of remote and school learning for some; balancing both will need careful thought and planning. We have used Microsoft Insights as a way of keeping all students positively engaged,” he says.

Ramsey thinks that the use of online learning during the long lockdown had benefits but stresses the need for children to take a break from the screen when studying at home. Many psychologists have warned of the damaging effects on children’s health of too much time on laptops and smartphones, including the risk of disturbed sleep if electronic devices are used too close to bedtime.

FORMING CONNECTIONS – A LESSON FROM LOCKDOWN

It is important going forward that we remember the meaningful connections that formed during lockdown within our school communities.

Whilst it may not be a substitute for human contact, many pupils found new friends and formed stronger, lasting relationships.

For many, a change of pace has given them the space to spend more time on the things that matter most.

Lockdown hasn’t been without its difficulties. However, we must seek positives wherever possible. New skills have blossomed – pupils became keen bakers, avid readers, nature lovers and some developed a love for fitness thanks to regular virtual PE sessions.

Pupils and staff found new ways of connecting having more time to chat about hobbies and interests instead of just the lesson in hand, or asking one another how they are more often.

We must remember the value of our care and support for one another as we move forward.

Source: James Allen’s Girls’ School

“Pupils have become more independent, and we have definitely seen many ‘fly’ as they have more time to pursue their passions, but we have also stressed the need to take breaks, keep active and pursue activities (sports, music, drama), which we have also prioritised through our remote platforms – this is crucial,” says Ramsey.

In the state sector too, many expect online learning to play a bigger role in schools in the future. A national online school – Oak National Academy – was set up by 80 teachers in response to the crisis. It recorded 10,000 lessons in summer 2020 for primary and secondary school pupils, including GCSE and A-level classes. Schools will be able to use any of the lessons free of charge – and many teachers are planning to ask children to log in to their computers and follow Oak lessons even if they are in class, while other pupils who may be shielding because they have underlying health conditions, follow the lessons on their laptops at home.

Oak even ran virtual school assemblies in lockdown – with the Duchess of Cambridge delivering one of the most popular, on the benefits of kindness.

Some headteachers think that the long-enforced home study period is likely to lead to some parents deciding not to return their children to school next year but to carry on home educating them, especially if they have special educational needs and struggle with the bustle of school life.

Andrew Halls OBE, Head of King’s College School Wimbledon (KCS), says he expects 300,000 children to be home-schooled by 2025 – a five-fold increase on the current level of 60,000. He thinks there is scope for more online teaching to cater for these families.

“I do think online learning is here to stay after lockdown,” he says. “I am surprising myself with my response. I am old school. I do not use computers in the classes that I personally teach. Pupils at KCS are not all given iPads. We are determinedly old school but I have realised this online teaching works a lot better than I thought it would. What is both interesting and threatening for schools is that after the crisis passes, up to 10% of parents may say, “My child found it easier to learn like this, they did not get bullied, they did not have an hour commute each way. I like it.”

Halls is now exploring setting up an online school to offer A-levels and other courses to youngsters. From September Harrow Online, an offshoot of Harrow School, has already decided to offer online A-levels.

Private tutoring is also likely to boom in the next 12 months as parents and schools try to help youngsters catch up with lost learning. Several companies are using online tutors to give one-to-one lessons to those who have fallen behind in school under a government-backed scheme run by the Education Endowment Foundation. Other tutoring agencies are offering private clients online tutoring at lower rates than are charged when a tutor goes to the family home for a session.

Some private schools discounted fees for the last term of 2020 because they had to move their teaching online and there were no sports or extra-curricular activities. Famous schools like Eton College discounted fees by 30% for the summer term and Eton, along with many other private schools, has frozen fees for 2020/2021.

At Whitgift, Ramsey says: “We made a reduction of between 12-50% on Trinity term fees in recognition of savings the school has made by being only partially open.” The picture however is not consistent. At Thames Christian School, for example, there were no discounts, “as staff delivered a full timetable of online school including lessons, assemblies, tutor times, fitness and even some extra curricular activities – savings were therefore minimal, “explains Head Stephen Holsgrove.

Headteachers like Suzie Longstaff are also looking at ways of helping families who may have financial difficulties as a result of the crisis, such as offering extra bursaries or support from hardship funds. Most headteachers are reporting requests for help with fees.

GCSE and A-level exams were cancelled this year due to the Covid-19 outbreak. Instead, students’ results will be based on teacher assessments, which will be moderated by the exam boards to try to ensure consistency with results in previous years. Students not happy with a grade awarded will be able to sit exams in the subject in the autumn if they want to challenge the result, but they can keep the summer grade if it is higher. Next year ministers have already indicated that GCSE and A-level exams may be delayed by a couple of months and start in July. Some pupils may not be required to take eight GCSEs, giving them more time for Maths, English and three or four other subjects.

Another frustration for local parents is that the Wandsworth Year 6 Admissions Test has been delayed from September until December which means that parents won’t receive the test results before they make their application. “We wanted pupils to be able to settle in when returning and that advantage outweighs the delay,” believes Adam Wells, Head of Pupil Services at Wandsworth Council. “It’s a big psychological leap when their children haven’t been to school for what is almost six months. In the longer term it will be fine, but it’s a big shift for families.”

But Wells believes overall that Wandsworth schools have fared well. “They’ve had to adapt at very short notice and they’ve done a good job in the circumstances. Resources have been stretched, to provide laptops and free school meals throughout the summer holidays, for example.”

He is also confident that if the anecdotal evidence of less parents choosing a private education for their child materialises due to the economic uncertainty, that there are enough school places in the borough. “That migratory pattern is definitely happening,” he says, “But we have enough capacity to accommodate children across our schools if there’s a small peak that comes through.”

Popular Nappy Valley schools such as Belleville has offered 30 additional places while Beatrix Potter’s threshold distance has reduced slightly from 711m to 636m due to the recent opening of Floreat nearby to ease the demand. In addition, a new school, The Anglo Portuguese School of London, is opening this September on the same campus as South Thames College. It is a free school and sponsored by the Portuguese Embassy. In addition, the long-mooted new school in Vauxhall looks likely to go ahead and open in 2023/24 says Wells.

The one thing that is certain is that education in the UK will look different after the pandemic has died down. “I am fairly certain that educational models over the next year or more will have to embrace hybrid models, [including online learning at home as well as face-to-face tuition in school]. Previously, there were much more clear boundaries between school and home. These have changed and this will be the new normal,” says Putney’s Longstaff.“

September will bring a new vigour for learning back into schools,” believes Debbie Morrison, head of Oliver House. “With secure timetables and familiar patterns of lessons and teachers, learning and teaching is set for a much-needed boost. In being denied the basic benefits of school life, the entire community within schools has become appreciative of all that was taken for granted before. This is our new and positive starting point when we return to school post Covid-19.”

This renewed vigour will shape the classroom of the future and it looks likely to mix online and a real-life setting and to make students take more ownership over their learning.