News moves fast in Covid. One moment, you’re confidently looking forward to the end of the pandemic and a great summer of freedom; the next, a new variant is driving cases upward at an alarming rate and everyone is rowing about masks again.
Similarly, it is hard to believe that it was only in May that many were happily debating the idea of extending the summer term to help students catch up with their lost learning. Jump forward two months, and that idea seems like a sick joke: schools are struggling towards the end of term – the thought of extending it pretty much unthinkable.
Talk in the last 18 months has rarely shied far from protecting the NHS, but it really isn’t too much of a stretch to suggest that if the summer holidays hadn’t arrived (as they have for most), then the school system could have collapsed.
Heads, teachers and teaching assistants are at their wits’ end. The last few weeks has seen them on the front line of “pingmageddon”, with both class- and year group-bubbles bursting all over the place and school staff in their tens of thousands being forced into isolation by the track and trace app.
Schools are, at their core, finely balanced systems. When they are well run, they can purr like a finely tuned sports car engine. But just with all such feats of precision engineering, they are very easily disrupted. They are certainly not designed to withstand for long the level of disruption they have faced in the last few weeks.
This crisis, of course, came hot on the heels of the trauma (in secondary schools) of teachers being asked to predict accurately and then evidence what they thought their students might have achieved in the hypothetical scenario that GCSEs had been sat this summer.
It’s almost impossible to overestimate quite what a professional and, for some, personal, trial this represented. It was a challenge few had ever expected and even fewer would want to repeat.
This painful process was undertaken in parallel with trying to patch up the educational and psychological mess that many students had become during the long dark winter months of the most recent lockdown. As has been well documented, the lost learning over those months has set back the educational trajectory for many young people, too often the young people who were already on the wrong side of the attainment gap between the haves and have nots.
Many of the same students (and numerous others) have leaned heavily on their teachers too, requiring mental health support to get through the pandemic. It’s not as if schools and teachers have access to the kind of professional support that they ought to have when dealing with these kinds of crises either.
Of course, these current problems, lest we forget, followed in the immediate aftermath of months of school staff attempting to run two schools in parallel – a virtual school for their students learning at home, and a school for those who by dint of their parents circumstances qualified to stay in the physical classroom. That anyone did any learning at all was no small achievement.
There has, for most who work in schools, barely been time to breathe since Christmas. Even the most experienced, battle-hardened teachers say it has been, by some distance, the hardest period of their lives. That more haven’t simply fallen over is testament to the resilience of educators.
They have been tested in extremis: not quite to breaking point, it turns out, but it was a very, very close run thing. As a result, the school system will be fragile for a long time yet, pandemic or no pandemic.
Ed Dorrell is the director of Public First
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