Memories of a gruelling and emotional 2020 summer term may be receding into memory for many primary school leaders and their teams, but the legacy of that remarkable time will be with them for years to come.
How schools approach the autumn term will set the shape and tone of teaching and learning in our schools for the rest of the academic year and beyond.
There’s much to be optimistic about. The flexibility, inventiveness and determination of schools in the spring saw teaching and learning move online en masse.
We have seen some amazing examples of this throughout the country; of schools that have fully embraced remote learning in all its richness, with primary school children engaging in exciting online lessons and virtual school events and using stimulating learning resources.
It’s been an exciting mixture of local innovation and national effort: we at Tes Global have played our part in supporting schools directly through our teaching resources, as well as working with national online learning initiatives with the BBC and Oak National Academy.
But big contrasts remain in online learning practice which are highlighted when you look across the nations of the UK. There has been more consistency of practice in Wales and Scotland, which have more centralised systems and a more centralised approach to the technology platforms that schools use. The result is that there is also less inconsistency in the leadership of technology to support teaching and learning.
The main challenge for primary leaders will be catch-up learning. Many schools have successfully used platforms such as Google Classroom and Microsoft Teams and maintained regular contact with their children so they know quite clearly what the learning gaps are. For other schools that have been late to online learning September is likely to be more of a challenge and they will have to backfill learning before they can move on, particularly in numeracy and SPaG.
As well as being across issues like wellbeing, attainment and catch up, leaders will need to ensure their schools are resilient. As we move into the colder months there will be the threat of covid spikes and local lockdowns and the possibility that staff may need time off due to illness or self-isolation. Schools will need to be fully prepared for these scenarios.
Consistency of confidence
A big question for school leaders is where online learning fits into this resilient school picture. We know that technology can be a real enabler of learning if it is well led, so we need a focus on a consistency of confidence and competence in the leadership of online learning.
A recent Tes Global survey revealed a clear need for professional support to help schools prepare for a future in which, whatever happens, online learning will have a more significant role to play in our education system, supplementing or, at times, temporarily replacing classroom learning.
Of the 2,400 school staff who took part in this summer survey, three quarters said they needed training in remote learning. More than two-thirds (69 per cent) had not received any training in remote learning during lockdown and that the most popular means for delivering remote lessons was to simply email work to pupils.
While the survey highlighted some challenges that policy makers should note, it also revealed the flexible and ‘can-do’ character of our school workforce. Participants said the lockdown had increased school staff confidence in using technology, with 79 per cent reporting that they were more likely to use technology in their teaching practice once the situation normalised.
The survey shows that online learning will be a major plank in any school resilience strategy for the new academic year and I believe that it makes a strong case for the Department for Education to impose an additional training day so that training can happen.
This need for online learning training also highlights a broader concern: that government should be more co-ordinated and strategic in its support of schools on this and other questions of resilience. It’s an approach primary school leaders are likely to need as they face a year likely to be every bit as unpredictable as the last one.
Lord Jim Knight is Chief Education and External Officer at Tes Global. He is a Member of the House of Lords and a former schools minister.