No time to learn

Suzy Davies MS argues that the impact of Covid-19 on schools should mean delaying the implementation of the new curriculum 

If you were ever curious about how complicated running a school is, then you’ll have had an inkling over these last few months.

First the speedy lockdown and the transfer of at least some teaching online, a new experience for most of our teachers.

That went hand in hand with some schools transforming into hubs for key workers and vulnerable children, again demanding new flexibility and quick thinking from school staff.

There was the pastoral concern for those who didn’t go to the hubs, who needed their free school lunches, who needed contact from their school, if not teaching by their teachers.

There were concerns for the teachers and other staff themselves, navigating an unknown sea full of anxious or absent pupils. And parents were suddenly thrown into the role of learning supervisor whilst juggling all the other reasons they found themselves at home.

And then there was the quality of education experience away from the traditional classroom. As Shadow Minister for Education, I’ve had nothing but admiration for teachers, support staff and families during this strangest of times. However, I would still be expecting Welsh Government to be satisfied that those staff and those families are getting the best support they can in these circumstances.

After some resolute nagging from Welsh Conservatives and an embarrassing admission from the Education department, local authorities and education consortia were given a talking-to and some monitoring work got underway mid-May.

Unfortunately, others had thought about this beforehand and, as you may have seen, a University College London study revealed that Welsh children had received less tuition during lockdown than children elsewhere in the UK.

The Parentkind survey may have shown that a good majority of families were happy with what children in Wales were getting, but maybe those families didn’t know what was on offer elsewhere.

That’s a particular worry when you consider that Welsh children are still performing less well than other UK children in key subject areas, as revealed by the four-yearly PISA results.

 As Welsh Conservatives, we have done our own survey work as well. In April and May, we surveyed schools across Wales, all communities; primary, secondary, schools for children with special needs, faith schools, Welsh, English and dual stream.

I’d like to thank all those school leaders who took time out of the maelstrom to answer our questions. Especially those of you who sent in examples of what seems to me to be absolute exemplars of how this lockdown has worked with the least loss of learning and the least amount of burnout for teachers and parents.

The biggest return of information was on one topic: the new school curriculum, and herein lies a serious warning for the Education Minister.

Schools want to implement the new curriculum, but if it goes live in September 2022, they will not be able to do it justice. Without exception, teachers want to be ready and they want to get this right.

We asked: “During this period are you and your teaching staff continuing to work on curriculum development for your school?”

54 percent said they were continuing some curriculum development with 46 percent saying they were unable to do any.

The main reason cited by teachers who were now unable to continue their work on the curriculum was the extra time and resources needed to support and provide home learning to their pupils and run their schools as Hubs. All taking time and energy away from curriculum preparation.

With almost half of schools unable to work on curriculum development during this time, it is likely that they will be ready for full implementation in September 2022.

In their answers, school leaders told us:

“Preparation and delivery for/of distance learning has taken over everything”

“We are working all hours, night and day, weekdays and weekends to prepare, deliver, support and feedback”

“Learning has been turned on its head”

“We are concentrating on regularly keeping in touch with all of the school community to ensure their wellbeing and for safeguarding purposes. We are preparing work for our pupils both online and paper-based activities. We are also ensuring that we provide daily support for our hub school”

We also asked: “Do you think this period will positively or negatively affect your school’s ability to prepare for the new curriculum?”

This question generated a lot of comments. Seventy-six percent of headteachers told us that this period was having a negative effect on their ability to prepare for the new curriculum.

Many told us of the work they had planned to do in the summer term to work on their curriculum which had to be cancelled to focus on the demands brought about by Covid-19.

They said:

“Staff have responded brilliantly to unprecedented demands on their time, skills and personal life to meet the children’s needs and this would be seen as irrelevant.”

“NEGATIVE! Impossible to work on the new curriculum with the current state of play. The demands on schools both emotionally and professionally are extremely high. I am very worried for the health and wellbeing of my staff.”

“As a school we are very excited about the new curriculum. It is a once in a lifetime opportunity to create a world-leading education system that has the pupils’ voice at the heart of it. I am concerned that with so much time being lost and the prospect of normality not returning for schools for some considerable time that we will end up with a curriculum not fit for purpose.”

Finally, we asked: “What support could the Welsh Government offer at this time to support your curriculum development?”

We left this as an open question and didn’t provide any suggestions or prompts. This made the results particularly striking.

The majority of those who provided an answer suggested that the implementation of the curriculum should be delayed. There were also requests for Estyn to delay the start of inspections, and for further additional INSET days alongside online training for teachers.

“In simple terms – just time – the deadline was very tight for secondary schools as it requires considerable reorganisation and planning.”

“Postponing introduction of the new curriculum. There are too many variables currently.”

“Defer its implementation until we come out of this storm.”

Just glance back to the beginning of this article at everything school leaders have been dealing with since March. 

Welsh Government’s Shared Expectations document of what should have been achieved by June is toast.

Expectations are now, surely, centred on emerging safely and sensibly from lockdown, assessing the storm damage and planning recovery, not least for those in key exam years come September.

We haven’t seen the Curriculum Bill yet. We don’t know what assessment of achievement produced by this new way of teaching will look like yet. We don’t know what a local curriculum looks like yet. We don’t even know how many teachers we’ll have yet.

After a period very respectable leadership throughout lockdown, the Education Minister blew it last week by leaving it to councils to decide whether to follow her policy or not.

Either she believes it’s necessary for children’s well-being and education for them, over four weeks to check in, catch up and prepare for summer or it’s not.

While a child’s family might be permitted to disagree with her (on this occasion) are councils and unions saying her reasons are wrong?

Now the Minister has an opportunity to recover some of what she has lost by listening to the profession of whom she has asked so much.

Introduce the Curriculum Bill, by all means, Minister, but make it clear that you can be persuaded on moving the implementation date.

Don’t force our teachers into a position where they cannot do their best for our children – or for you.

All articles published on the welsh agenda are subject to IWA’s disclaimer.

Suzy Davies MS is the Welsh Conservative Shadow Minister for Education

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