Without proper evaluation and evidence we won’t learn the real lessons from lockdown

There is no substitute for interviews with every student and member of staff

General Secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) from 2010-2016. Now freelance education leadership specialist

In an earlier blog I offered a list of questions that might begin to frame the kind of discussion that is necessary in order to take our education service forward as we gradually reintegrate students after the lockdown.

Before we move forward it is vitally important for decisions to be informed by proper evidence about the impact the lockdown has had on young people, what has worked well and what has not.

Questions for Leaders to reflect on.

It is evident from the published, broadcast and social media that many ideas about specific actions are being floated. I would argue that this kind of thinking misses the unique opportunity to ask fundamental questions and rethink those things that we do in our schools just because we have always done them that way.

As someone who left headship 10 years ago but still works closely with numerous schools I would not presume to know the answers but I am certain that a thorough evaluation of the impact of the lockdown on students, parents and staff is absolutely essential in every school before detailed plans are completed.

Schools have of course been in conversation with many of these people during the lockdown and many have received extensive feedback. Nevertheless we will not really know the whole picture until far more in depth conversations have taken place and this intelligence has been carefully collated and analysed. There has never been a time when it was more important to be listening to our communities.

This is no minor task but without it we would be working in the dark. Here are some suggested activities:

1. Structured Interviews

Structured interviews with every single member of the school. These will almost certainly need to be conducted in small groups, ideally face to face, but some will inevitably need to take place virtually. It is important that nobody is left out. Though many students have had conversations with teachers during the lockdown I am aware that there are significant numbers who, though they have completed work, have not had a personal conversation with a teacher since March.  We need to understand the full picture, finding out what has worked well as well as the challenges. Topics might include the following:

  •   What students have been doing during lockdown
  •   Extent to which they have engaged with learning tasks set by school
  •   The completion of work informed by evidence such as class charts, feedback from subject teachers
  •   Difficulties they have encountered – these may be connected with learning or their wellbeing
  •   Aspects of their learning with which they are struggling
  •   Are there any other learning experiences they had which can be shared and built upon?
  •   How well prepared are they to return to school in terms of frame of mind, motivation and mental health?
  •   An opportunity for the students to ask any questions.

Questions for Leaders to reflect on.

Only when we have this information will we be able to plan the support students need going forward, organise class groupings and plan an appropriate curriculum. A careful analysis of students’ needs will help us to prioritise which students need the most time in school and which are likely to make better progress continuing with more remote learning.    Much of the focus of discussion has been on those year groups which the DFE prioritised for return (years 1,6,10 and 12) and those identified as disadvantaged or vulnerable. The reality though is that we need to do this for all students in year groups including those in years 11 and 13 whose experience has been particularly seriously disrupted. We cannot allow the needs of any students to be forgotten.

One thought to consider is what the role of the form tutor might look like going forward at a time when 20 minute sessions with a whole class at the beginning of the day are impractical. Rethinking that into the idea of a learning coach/ mentor whose role is to conduct the kinds of conversations I have described, monitor each student’s engagement with their learning and act as the link between home and school could strengthen a powerful bond between students and their school.

2. Feedback from parents

Questions for Leaders to reflect on.

Similarly we need to access feedback from parents. I would argue that a written survey, though valuable,  is not enough on its own. Again some virtual focus groups and telephone conversations covering a wide range of students  will be essential . What has the experience been like for our most vulnerable students, our most academically able, those who have a history of struggling in school perhaps with SEN or behaviour problems? What should the role of parents be in the future given many of whom have done so much during this period? What can parents teach us about the lessons they have learned from their experience?

It will be necessary to consider how this task is undertaken and by whom. Maybe year and house heads as well as SLT will need to share it.

3. Feedback from staff

Questions for Leaders to reflect on.

We need similar in depth conversations with each member of staff. How has it been for them? What has gone well or less well? What have they learnt about the way they need to work as we move out of the pandemic? What can or should they do differently and what should remain the same? What do they need to do in order to prepare to teach their classes? What have we learnt about ways of working that had not previously been considered and might be a helpful way of reducing workload?

4. Proper evaluation

Questions for Leaders to reflect on.

It will be essential to take forward all of the intelligence gathered through these evaluative activities with staff and governors or trustees in order to reset their vision and priorities. The current period lends itself to virtual conversations meetings in order to do this. I would respectfully challenge any school or Trust that ends up moving forward without a significantly different set of strategic priorities. The questions I listed in the blog I mentioned at the beginning of this piece might be a good place to start.

Whatever we do and however desperate this period has been we cannot afford to miss the unique opportunity it has afforded to reset and take forward our education service in the very best interests of the young people in our care.

This blog has necessarily looked at big issues with a very broad brush but I hope it serves as a useful conversation starter.  I wish you well as you seize that agenda.

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