Change lies with us - now is the time to find our voice and come back stronger.

Rich learnings from across the Challenge Partners network for a better post-Covid schools system

As we approach the end of term, the two things on most education minds are: ‘are we nearly there yet?’ and ‘what more do we need to do now to be ready for September?’ Important questions, especially the focus on taking some well-earned rest over the summer given the tireless work across the sector, non-stop since February.

At Challenge Partners, we have been exploring a third question this term: how do we ensure the new normal we eventually settle into is better than the normal we had before? How do we use this crisis as a platform to build a system, a curriculum and opportunities for our students that address some of the endemic challenges that have long plagued us? Like the yawning disadvantage gap. Like the relevance (or lack of it) of the curriculum to the communities our pupils come from and the world they’re growing up in.

We have asked the practitioners across our diverse and vibrant national network of over 500 schools and 100 trusts what has worked during lockdown that they don’t want to let go. Their answers have covered everything from the individual to the institutional to the systemic.

Change for individuals

At individual level, people have seized new ways to balance work and other aspects of life. Gone are the days when we will make long trips for short meetings – whether traversing East Anglia for a local authority meeting or endless evenings on the road for local governing body meetings across multiple schools. We’re all zoomers now, and the mass migration to virtual communication has also solved at a stroke the conundrum of how to share knowledge and practice across the Challenge Partners network stretching from Cornwall to County Durham through online events and the opportunity to catch up in the way you would your favourite box-set.

Change for schools

At school level, blended learning integrating technology and more traditional pedagogy is set to continue, out of necessity certainly, but mainly because of what it can add to the learning experience. I was struck early in lockdown by a leader who talked about how some of the boys who were often invisible in classrooms were flourishing thanks to the opportunity to learn and present their work digitally.  Others have highlighted the value of asynchronous online teaching and the opportunity it affords students to engage at their chosen time and their own pace. Not the medium for teaching new concepts, but what a great tool for revision and guiding practice – including in practical subjects like art, music, languages where copying expert demonstration enables powerful progress. We need to overcome the digital and disadvantage divide to ensure that every child has access to such rich resources.

A sense of connection

At the same time, relationships, belonging, care and compassion have been valued like never before. I’ve heard leaders marvel at the bonds formed between staff and students thrown together in keyworker school, and how the absence of pressure to move pupils relentlessly through the curriculum has allowed interests, talents and connections to emerge organically in ways that will support better classroom dynamics and learning if they can be carried back into school. And then there’s the greater understanding and empathy staff have gained by reaching into the homes of the families they serve as they delivered food parcels, made calls, invited pictures and video of learning at home, and beamed into kitchens and living rooms for live lessons and circle times.

That sense of connection is something many have valued beyond their institution too. In education, as across all sections of society, the pandemic inspired unprecedented collaboration, determination to give – and willingness to accept – support. Such generosity of spirit has always been a hallmark of Challenge Partners, but we have been blown away by the spontaneous sharing of resources, ideas and reflections, which are available to all on our website.

Despite the initial angst created by each government announcement and update to the guidance, school and trust leaders have seemed increasingly emboldened and empowered by the realisation that when where we’re all making it up, the best place to look for answers is not generally the gov.uk website, but to our values, our colleagues and peers. Challenge Partners’ Chair, Jon Coles, has talked about the shedding of ‘governmentality’, our tendency to look to DfE for direction, and hopefully that too is something we can hold onto.

So we are finding our voice and that the wherewithal to effect change lies with us as a sector, rooted in our position as public servants in the truest sense, and oriented in our values and aspirations for the children and communities we serve. We are recognising that by working together we can develop one amazing wheel, rather than many rather wonkier ones. Let’s build on that as we roll forward to September and beyond.

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