Scotland’s independent think tank
Scotland’s independent think tank

An opportunity for everyone to learn – Keir Bloomer


Across the world millions of people are waiting for lockdown to be lifted and for life to ‘return to normal’.  Barring for complete catastrophe, that is – for the most part – what is going to happen.  Offices and factories will reopen.  Cafes and restaurants will start serving again.  Children will return to school.

It is impossible that an upheaval of such magnitude will leave no lasting legacy.  At the very least there will be a determination to learn lessons, to ensure that we are better prepared in the future.  However, it seems certain that life will change in other ways as a result of the experience of the current crisis.  Take, for example, home working and teleconferencing.  Neither is a new idea, but they were hardly part of the everyday experience of most people.  That has changed dramatically.  A threshold has been crossed.  Face-to-face meetings will resume, but the electronic alternative will be with us on a greatly enhanced scale.  Many employers and employees will have found new ways of working that are productive and congenial.  The implications, for instance for transport services, are difficult to foresee but will certainly be significant.

What of education?   Schools are closed and will probably remain so for several months.  Everyone accepts that learning should go on – somehow.  Most young people will learn at home; others by attending ‘hubs’ for the children of key workers.  Schools are trying their best to supply pupils with work and suitable materials for them to use at home.  Some are doing a remarkable job, offering lessons on line, taking in assignments and giving feedback.  As yet, this falls short of an organised strategy, but that may emerge over time.

There are real concerns about the likely effects on disadvantaged learners.  Research has demonstrated that they are put at particular risk by absence from school over the six weeks of the summer holidays.  How much further might their learning slip back during a closure of, maybe, five months?  A more dramatic way of widening the attainment gap would be difficult to imagine.  How can schools try to minimise the impact?

The effect on family life will be huge.  For 150 years society has taken for granted that the education service will function also as the national childminding service.  At the same time, parents are being required to play an active role in their children’s education in an unprecedented way.  Most parents of young children will be only too aware of the need to encourage reading and counting.  In the case of older learners, parents will want to answer their questions and help them use the online materials schools are issuing.  At the very least, all parents will have faced the challenge of keeping their children on task.  Of necessity, schools are coming to see supporting parents as a critical part of their function.

By the autumn of this year, many countries will have attempted to run an education system without much use of school buildings.  Twenty years ago that could not even have been contemplated.  New technological means of communicating with individuals, groups and whole classes and high-quality materials for distance learning have created a very different situation.   

Nobody knows how well all this will work.  For certain, everyone will become aware that learning is, at last in part, a social activity and that something important is lost when social interaction becomes impossible.  However, there will be positive aspects too.  Some young people will find the new ways or organising learning suit them well.    Many teachers will appreciate the quality and usefulness of at least some of the online materials.    At the very least, a huge experiment will have taken place and there will be a need to evaluate it and try to learn from the experience.

Perhaps a useful way of thinking about it is to consider the impact on the way the service uses the resources available to it.  Schools deliver learning efficiently by grouping learners together in classes, usually of 20 to 30, in the care of a single teacher.  From this several consequences follow – a defined school day and year, a fixed starting point for schooling, a tendency to group according to age and stage.  So strong has been the basic model that all these features have come to be regarded as axiomatic.  The result is that every school uses a very high proportion of the human resource under its control to provide the frontline service; a teacher standing in front of a class.  Preparation, correction and similar activities take up much of the remaining resource.  School management accounts for a smaller proportion.  The amount available for any other activity is small.

In present circumstances, this model does not work.  Class contact has to be electronic.  In some schools it does not take place.  Even where it occurs, it does not – as previously it did – occupy all of the pupil day.  Other activities – searching out materials, setting tasks, providing feedback and supporting parents – take up the slack.  In other words, teachers are accepting the reality that there is more than one way to deploy the school’s resources and that the traditional way is not always the best.

It is inconceivable that operating in a different way will not affect how teachers think about their role.  Long-held assumptions about how schools have to operate will be questioned.  These preconceptions are, of course, the factors that have imposed the most powerful constraints on innovation.  In future the argument that “it isn’t possible” will be less persuasive.

As with life in general, most aspects of schooling will return to normal.  However, the system will have taken part in a great learning experiment and will be aware of new possibilities.  It is important that we learn from the experience.

Keir Bloomer is chair of the Commission on School Reform