The reality of 2020

As the new academic year gets underway, Caroline Doherty, head of education strategy at The Key, reflects on how many of our 2020 education sector predictions ended up being far from reality and examines which emerging trends might be here to stay.

Back in January I shared my thoughts on what the education sector could expect in 2020. I considered manifesto commitments (that December election feels a long time ago now) and topics like Ofsted, funding and curriculum. Unsurprisingly perhaps, I didn’t suggest a global pandemic might force the country’s schools to close to the majority of students at a moment's notice, or that teachers would undertake a vast remote learning experiment. I also failed to predict that we'd take, albeit tentative steps, to examine the concept of race in our society and our curricula. So, I think it's safe to say I won’t be taking up a career in fortune telling any time soon.

But in all seriousness, as the new academic year begins, where are we now and what's next? As the reality of living with COVID-19 sets in, and we get our heads around the tiers of the ‘contain strategy’, year group bubbles, staggered starts and facemasks, there are still some big unanswered questions. What’s going to happen about exams next year? How will rotas, if needed, work in practice? Could schools close again in the event of a second nationwide spike? I’ve learnt from my previous prediction experience, and won’t attempt to answer those questions here, but I will stick my neck out and suggest three emerging trends that are hopefully here to stay.

The power of collaboration

Everyone in education shares a common purpose, so joint working is nothing new, but the speed and depth of partnership working has increased hugely. When the crisis hit, the focus was on shared humanity, and professional generosity abounded (as it always does in education). Schools have repeatedly gone above and beyond to support each other and the communities they serve. Whether it be projects on the scale of Oak Academy, or school leaders sharing their preparations and documents with peers or just providing a sympathetic listening ear, colleagues across the country have truly united. This powerful common purpose makes the sector much more of a force to be reckoned with and has made the government reconsider its actions on too many occasions to mention. Hopefully, we’ll see more of this powerful, collective voice of the profession this academic year.

Tackling the growing disadvantage gap

As attention turns firmly to catch-up, evidence confirms the gap between disadvantaged pupils and their peers has grown even wider. The Education Policy Institute recently showed it has actually stopped narrowing for the first time in a decade. While progress on closing the gap was stalling even before the pandemic, disadvantaged pupils in England are now 18.1 months of learning behind their peers by the time they finish their GCSEs – the same gap as five years ago. The introduction of the National Tutoring programme later this term as part of the wider “catch up premium” promises to provide some additional support to schools. However, teachers will have their work cut out assessing all pupils’ learning gaps and making sure that those on pupil premium don’t get further behind, particularly if schools have to return to periods of remote learning.

Diversity and inclusion  

A positive change in the past few months has been a new openness and appetite for discussing systemic racism, unconscious bias and the vital roles schools can play in developing the kind of society where everyone can achieve and succeed. Curriculum review was, of course, the hot topic last September with the introduction of the new Ofsted framework. However, the urgency and potency of the Black Lives Matter movement is leading to even more important work being done in schools to use their curriculum to work towards racial justice. There is also a huge amount of work to do on diversity in school leadership. As Mindful Equity founder, Youlande Harrowell points out, staggeringly just 0.1% of assistant heads are from mixed white, black African and Chinese groups.

Building inclusive workplaces and facilitating flexible working is another issue that has been thrown into sharper focus this year, with many teachers working at home while looking after their own children. Staff meetings and CPD sessions via Zoom may mean less pressure for staff to be physically present beyond their time with pupils and even open up the hitherto unimaginable prospect of “teaching from home”. Bearing in mind how exhausted the school workforce is, and the challenges this year will hold, I’m sure lots of schools will be thinking about how they can use technology to reduce workload and work more flexibly for the long term.  =The leaders running our schools have proven time and time again, their flexibility and willingness to adapt to whatever is thrown at them, in order to do the best for their pupils. If COVID-19 has taught us anything, it’s that we should hold on to what we do know about our schools, teachers and pupils and stop trying to second guess or predict the future for a while. 

Caroline Doherty is head of education strategy at The Key, a provider of up-to-the-minute sector intelligence and resources that empower education leaders with the knowledge to act. Caroline has been a school governor for 10 years.