Back to school: The urgent need for ‘normal’

As England’s children troop back to school after an enforced two-month absence, there is intense speculation about the likely impact on the Covid infection rate. The major questions that should be preoccupying schools, colleges and universities are swept aside by a focus on infection control strategies and logistics – lateral flow testing, mask wearing, and enforcing social distancing.

Some have raised important questions about the scientific evidence for the necessity for such measures, particularly in areas where Covid rates are currently very low. My own concern is that continual demands to make schools adapt to different public health requirements runs counter to what children need from schools right now – continuity, stability, and a sense of normality.

Schools, colleges and universities provide important sites for the interaction within and between generations. Education is a crucial element of the intergenerational transaction; it brings young people into a dialogue with their cultural heritage, and demands that they think outside the confines of their immediate circumstances. Essential to this process is the understanding that teachers are not like parents, and school is not like home.

The bedroom-based remote learning that has substituted for several months’ worth of school over the past year has confused the boundaries between these two spheres of life, and blurred the distinct roles played by teachers and parents. This is disorienting for students, teachers and parents alike; when schools re-open, re-establishing the necessary expectations and boundaries will not be straightforward.

Educational institutions also provide a space for young people to be with each other. This, too, is vital for the educational process – students develop ideas and skills in conversation with each other. This is why we have discussions in class; why we organise seminars at university. Even interactive learning technologies provide limited opportunities for this kind of discussion: the default remote learning style is that the teacher talks, and the pupil works on their own.

The opportunity for young people to be with each other in the bounded environment of school, college or university is also important for their social and emotional development: they learn to develop friendships, navigate tensions, and to measure their personal reactions against those of their peers. In the absence of this environment, young people have been denied both the pressure and the support of these everyday social interactions. Their social world has shrunk to their immediate family and their closest friends.

The disruption to education has not been limited to the everyday experience of learning. The cancellation of public examinations in schools for two years in a row has derailed what has been, rightly or wrongly, regarded as the raison d’être of working hard at school. Students currently in Years 11 and 13 – formally the key points of their school journeys – are floundering in uncertainty about how they will be assessed, and what their grades will mean.

In September, Universities will have an intake of undergraduates whose engagement with the two years of their A-level courses has been patchy: teacher-assessed grades may reflect a student’s attitude and ability, but will indicate little about their levels of subject knowledge. We should expect that Universities will step up to redress this, but it requires a commitment to re-establishing the normal standards of Higher Education, and the physical space to allow genuine interaction to take place.

Many continue to brush over the damage caused to the educational process by school closures and exam cancellations, by imagining that remote learning has provided an effective substitute and that emergency grading measures can tell us the same as formal, established procedures. There is a determination in some quarters to prolong the upheaval caused by measures designed to contain the spread of Covid-19, by demanding that students continue to adopt the isolating measures of mask-wearing and social distancing. This will continue to corrode the purpose and experience of education, and prolong students’ disorientation into the next academic year.

Therefore, there is an urgent imperative to re-establish the normal rules and expectations of an educational environment – to re-open schools as places focused on bringing the younger generation into society, rather than keeping them separate from it.

An updated version of this article was published in The Critic.

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