As we search for evidence of a safe return to a schooling normality, we are in danger of finding ourselves in a catch-22 situation, with the research we rely so heavily upon to guide us having dried up as the lockdown continues. Here, our Chair Professor Sir George Berwick, explores the three areas of knowledge we would usually draw upon and what we did before when we found ourselves in a similar dilemma.
The educational community in England is trying to establish a safe approach to school-based learning. At home no one has operated in the current conditions before, so they are scouring the world for information to help them do this.
As we have already described in our theory of action, to determine what to do next we need to access three areas of knowledge:
- Relevant research
- Emerging effective innovation and
- Best practice.
This is where we hit our first obstacle. In these unprecedented times there is sadly little in the way of emerging effective innovation or best practice that we are in a position to draw upon. To say it doesn’t exist would be inaccurate but the scant information we do have comes from a different context, such as the practice we have reported upon in Quebec and Sweden. As a result, many are reluctant to adopt it.
We therefore find ourselves turning to relevant research to determine our next course of action. Therein lies the rub, because as we have seen in the UK from the reports provided by the Sage Group who are advising the UK Government, there is often limited consensus amongst the experts. And this provides fuel for a whole range of interpretations and resulting actions. In addition, research depends on something happening. In the event that nothing happens, we have no evidence to support new activity. In this situation stalemate is reached, and a never ending circle of inactivity perpetuates, until someone, somewhere, does something.
The English education system has been in this position before, admittedly in considerably less fraught times. It happened when we realised that the existing condition within which school trips operated, the checks made on those working in schools and the limits placed on visitors to our schools were too lax. To resolve this, risk assessments and modes of operation had to be upgraded. With these new parameters established we quickly realised that the correct guidelines had been set to keep our students safe and the rewards far outweighed the effort.
So it will be in the current situation. Schools are going to find a way, however limited, to minimise the risk to their community while continuing to provide a safe learning environment. This is bound to result in a limit being imposed on student numbers and a modification to the learning environment. As we have seen in Quebec, their action will be heavily scrutinised. They will be extremely cautious initially and then, once the evidence is collected and the risk deemed manageable, the student numbers might well be cautiously expanded.
The leaders of these schools are going to draw on their organisational capital to find a suitable physical solution and their moral capital to get parents, pupils and teachers to accept it. It is interesting to note that in Denmark the whole school is regarded as a learning envirnment and not just the buildings. This has provided them with far greater options to draw upon.
As we have learnt, moral capital is at the heart of our learning communities. It’s the glue that binds us together. It requires trust, openness, listening, respect for diversity, a track record of good care and collaborative learning. All attributes our colleagues have shown in Canada and that we need to demonstrate now.
Without these capitals in place, the stalemate will continue. Those demanding the evidence that does not exist will never be satisfied and a whole generation of students, especially from disadvantaged backgrounds, will have their life chances reduced. For their parents their trust in the educational system will be eroded and the opportunity for them to leave their homes to resume work denied.
Our thoughts are with all of you in whatever conditions you are trying to operate. For those of you involved in restarting your schooling, if ever there was a time to lead and manage, it is now. We wish you the best of luck as you take the first risk-assured, safe steps on your path to the new normality. Take care and stay safe.