Build out Readier

Learning for the next crisis?

Curriculum Development Lead with the LETTA Trust, and Director of the HertsCam Network.

My most exciting moment in my first term with the LETTA Trust, a small MAT in Poplar, Tower Hamlets, had nothing to do with me and almost everything to do with almost every other member of staff. As I left my classroom after teaching Year Four, I passed the three Year Three classes. In the first, a teacher was there alone, live Zooming to thirty self-isolating children. In the second, the same English lesson was happening; all thirty children were there with a teaching assistant taught by a self-isolating teacher from her living room. The third classroom was the old normal; Neil and his whole class were in there, experiencing the same lesson.

Nine months ago, this set up would have been unimaginable to almost all schools. Six months ago, it may well have been seen as undeliverable. The fact that, in week thirteen of the probably longest term in the world, it was happening smoothly, and children were learning, was a credit to the whole school – a synergy of operational nous, pedagogical stamina, and above all commitment.

As well as the longest, It was probably the toughest term of most teachers’ lives. Leaders were faced with an exhausting daily set of micro-decisions, all of them both urgent and important. All school staff also had home lives to navigate – again a series of complex choices and responding to new information. As we dragged ourselves to the precipice of Christmas, it was the kids’ excitement, despite so many reasons not to be excited, that kept many of us going.

The pandemic has reinforced the need to go beyond the national curriculum

It was also a strange term for me to start a new part-time role in the Trust’s leadership team, accountable for our strategic focus on a disposition-rich curriculum this year. Whilst we are confident that our existing knowledge-rich curriculum is ‘good enough’ for OFSTED, our vision for LETTA pupils is more ambitious than this. So we want to define and categorise and the wider dispositions we want pupils to develop, linked to our values and our overarching Ubuntu philosophy. That’s the easy-ish ‘intent’ part. We then need to find the most effective and creative ways to integrate the development of these dispositions into our curriculum, systematically and sequentially. Those who advocate for a broader set of outcomes have often failed to match good intent with sufficiently rigorous and sustained attention to implementation and impact.

Doing all this in a way that goes with the grain of school staff’s priorities and energy levels is my weekly holy grail. Focus has inevitably shifted to the more immediate: a ‘catch up curriculum’, in particular for our youngest children from lower-income families who seem to have suffered most from the first lockdown; the systems and processes for blended learning to occur anytime, anyplace, anywhere. But staff recognise that the pandemic has reinforced the need to go beyond the national curriculum to give our pupils the ‘qualities of mind and character’ they need to thrive, as children and adults.

The use and abuse of the crisis to ramp up further pressures on schools to transform feels borderline unethical

Along the way, as I reach to the edu-web for inspiration,  I have found myself increasingly irritated by the exhortations of those outside of the reality of schools to ‘build back better’. Many are simply using the pandemic as an excuse to wheel out existing views about the current state of education, and shout out existing opinions about what needs to change. Of course, they sometimes have a point; the pandemic has revealed some long term systemic problems about, for instance, the bizarre nature of our accountability and assessment systems, and the inconsistency of local capacity to respond to crises. But the use and abuse of the crisis to ramp up further pressures on schools to transform feels borderline unethical.

Instead of Build Back Better, how about Build Out Readier?

‘Back’ is a silly word; we never went away. Even in the Summer term, as many schools were struggling to develop systems for remote learning, we still set up food banks, targeted psycho-social support, and offered other ways to stay connected.

In contrast, ‘Build Out’ implies that schools need to build from what they had in place, including the incredible capacity for teacher-led innovation that the pandemic unearthed. So many teachers stepped up, for and beyond their own schools.

And ‘Better’ implies some kind of transformative leap that risks setting us all up for failure. Yes, some of our systems may be better, especially related to blended and online learning. As a system, it also feels like school leaders might have a new-found confidence to prioritise what matters, rather than what OFSTED believes matters. However, as our AA friends remind their members, ‘an expectation is a resentment under construction’. In addition, the aim for ‘better’ is hardly new – we’re all on a journey of continuous improvement.

So how about ‘Readier’? It’s a clumsy word… kind of a Boxing Day Scrabble word. ‘Readier’ implies a careful construction of the systems and processes so that when this happens again, schools are ready with a blended curriculum, some brilliant catch-up activities, and all the emotional support we know is so needed. It will require professional development that goes beyond the implementation of reductive teacher career frameworks. And (I would say this wouldn’t I?) it will require the systematic development of a set of dispositions in our young people that, combined with knowledge and skills, will give them all the best chance of thriving the next time they are stuck at home, as well as when their workplaces demand creative responses to yet another externally-inflicted crisis. I have no ready-made answers for how we’ll support our schools, our teachers and our pupils to become ‘readier’, but would welcome inspiration from other schools about their emerging approaches.

‘Building Out Readier’ is evolutionary, cautious, undisruptive –  ‘BORing’, even. As we all go into a mercifully shorter Spring and Summer Terms, when the uncertainties of lockdowns and variants and vaccines will only grow, BORing sounds like exactly what we all need.

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