Blog 5: What difference a year makes: changing priorities for schools

Rachel Mathieson, Judith Hanks, Chris Forde

March 2021

A year ago this week, the priorities of teachers and schools changed, virtually overnight. Out went the curriculum plans and in came the contingency measures and firefighting in order to keep children safe and fed.

One impact of the COVID-19 pandemic has been to shine a light on the role of schools in caring, not only for their pupils, but also for their communities. We may note that it took a pandemic to open up the space which allowed this crucial part of what teachers and schools do to be noted by the outside world, bringing into question the predominant ideology within education in what we might hesitatingly call ‘normal’ times, and society’s expectations and acceptance of this.

During the national lockdown period between March and May 2020, with schools open only to vulnerable and key workers’ children, and continuing since, as part of our project on the well-being of teachers, we have listened to teachers and senior leaders talking about the changes to their working lives. In this blog, we consider what we could learn about schools’ priorities from the evidence we have heard.

Schools are, first and foremost, about caring

Schools responded in astonishing ways to the challenge of providing care, food, and social and emotional support, not only to their own pupils, but to the families in their communities. Providing food has always been a central focus within schools. Anyone who lived through the fury unleashed when Margaret Thatcher discontinued school milk provision in primary schools in 1971 will remember the visceral reactions to this policy on both sides. The campaign led by Marcus Rashford to continue meal vouchers, for children entitled to free school meals, into the school holidays was, and continues to be, high profile in the media, again demonstrating the strength of feeling on this issue amongst the public and politicians alike.

In the spring lockdown of 2020, the government introduced a voucher scheme to replace free school meals. Teachers told us that some schools did not move to the voucher scheme at first, waiting until it settled down and was known to be functioning effectively. But the deliberate strategies of schools choosing not to move to the voucher system go further than a concern about hunger. By persisting with providing food bags or parcels at school, for families to collect, and by delivering them to doorsteps, the school was able to see someone from each at-risk family on a regular basis, and talk to them. One senior leader from a Pupil Referral Unit described to us how:

“even our challenging families now really appreciate having the face-to-face contact, having the food parcels, the welfare.”

Form teachers phoned home on a regular basis to check on pupils, though the frequency varied from school to school and context to context. There was follow-up from teachers, leaders or welfare teams wherever there were concerns about a child, for example if nobody picked up the phone. Members of staff went out to visit pupils’ houses, delivering packs of work, and food parcels, but equally importantly to knock on the door and make contact.

Headteachers were closely and personally involved in this activity. While teachers were mostly at home, getting their heads around online teaching, adapting their resources and their pedagogy, senior leaders were often the ones taking the welfare reins. One senior leader described how he had negotiated priority access to a local supermarket pharmacy for the families of vulnerable pupils, and how the school was offering the services of their mental health counsellor to parents, as well as to the staff for whom the service was originally intended. He told us:

“communication with parents has gone through the roof.”

Schools are about community

In some areas, local schools formed hubs, joining together with both local authority and academy trust schools to pool resources and share the responsibility for opening. Other schools kept just sections of their buildings open, so as to keep the cleaning and maintenance to a minimum. Some schools invited extra children into school beyond those designated on the official list as vulnerable, to give them and their families some respite and some space.

Teachers told us that the numbers of children attending school in person were small – in some cases, fewer than ten or even half a dozen children attending across the whole school. They were looked after in mixed age groups, with activities ranging from baking to wildlife walks to football to craft, and some attempt to access curriculum activities teachers had set for their pupils who were learning from home.

Schools are at the heart of our society

The lack of a national strategy to manage education through the pandemic, and the transition into an unclear future, has contrasted vividly with the national strategies to protect the NHS and the series of financial schemes designed to mitigate damage to jobs and the economy. Teachers have been on the frontline of the response to COVID-19, playing a critical role which has been generally underplayed by the media, despite teachers facing extraordinary, but often overlooked or indeed invisible, challenges, often at personal risk.

The role of the teacher has shifted in a number of ways during this last year. Perhaps the most significant and telling change has been in the alteration in the balance between what is commonly thought of as curriculum delivery, and pastoral care. Our evidence from schools across all sectors chimes with and adds to the work on primary schools from Professor Gemma Moss and her team at UCL Institute for Education, who found that schools play a significant role in keeping children fed and safe. They conclude that the importance of caring for children and communities is at risk of being obscured by public debate around ‘learning loss’ and ‘catch up’.

A year on, this is a moment when society could harness the potential for change. We are watching and listening keenly.