Today, the government revealed how it plans to enable all children to return to school by September.
Following new guidelines, schools will group students into classroom “bubbles”, rearrange classrooms to enable social distancing from the teacher, ban choirs and assembles and, most importantly, overhaul the curriculum.
The latter is the most contentious and headline-grabbing new measure, proposing that schools focus on English and maths and cut down on lesson time for other subjects, such as Art, Drama and History.
But what do teachers think of this bold new proposal? We spoke to a handful of education professionals to find out.
How will they adapt to the new style of teaching?
Under new guidelines, children will need to face the front of the classroom, and teachers need to keep a one-metre distance. This mode of teaching won’t suit all students, according to peripatetic primary school music teacher, Emily Hall, as some students need more interaction and group work to understand a topic.
“If you have a child who is really struggling because they're dyslexic and haven't had the right support,” she says, “then if they have a whole day of just sitting with a pen and paper, their confidence levels are going to plummet.”
It could pose issues for teachers, too. Melanie Berger, a German teacher at a girl’s private secondary school, is a “bit concerned” about the new classroom layout. “It'll be hard and it might come with a decrease in quality of teaching,” she says. “A lot of methods which engage a lot of kids and help them a lot simply won't be possible any more.”
Teachers will need to adapt to the new teaching style, agrees Tony Grogan, a history teacher at Turton School in Greater Manchester and an ambassador for Get Into Teaching. He usually leans over students to correct their work, which he will no longer be able to do. “But it’s not going to change the quality - it really isn’t,” he says. “We’re just going to have to come up with new ways of doing things.”
What about classroom 'bubbles'?
Grouping students into bubbles is a “great idea”, Berger says - although, from her experience of grouping pupils on Zoom, she knows it can “go both ways”.
“Some kids find it very hard - they started having mental health issues which they didn't have before,” she says.
However, introverted students who “struggled in school to be in a big classroom with different people every hour” are now flourishing. “They find it stress-relieving to be in these small bubbles (at home at least) when they can't tell if the other students are doing better or working faster. Those students have improved a lot.”
Why do children need a creative outlet?
Regardless of style of teaching, focusing on maths and English and changing the curriculum is “outrageous”, according to Hall, as it ignores children’s individuality.
“The whole point of the curriculum is that it's overseen by Ofsted, who've implemented new guidelines from September of last year,” she says, “which were all about how the curriculum needs to be focused to every student's needs, that the focus on maths and science wasn't good enough, that we need to have a multi-faceted curriculum. Suddenly there's been such a U-turn.”
Creative subjects have transferable skills, too. Music, for instance, teaches children “so many human qualities,” Hall says, including “listening, teamwork, problem solving, being able to perform in front of an audience”.
These subjects can also motivate students to work harder in their English and maths classes. “Plenty of kids get through maths and English because they know they've got drama and music later,” explains Leon Hady, former headteacher and founder of Guide Education, a platform which trains 10,000 people to become teachers around the world.
These subjects have a “knock-on effect” on more traditional subjects, Hady adds. “They need creative outlets to be able to tap into purpose and that purpose can have a knock-on effect to their attitude and self-belief in other subjects.”
Limiting lessons in, say, art and music will “reduce the idea of a rounded education”, Hady explains.
Mark Mortimer, head of The Bryanston School, agrees. He will not be implementing the government’s guidelines at his independent school. “The Government’s focus on English and maths won’t apply to us, because we are an independent school, but also because we’re determined to maintain the balanced, rounded curriculum we’ve always offered.”
How will this affect the attainment gap?
Given that independent schools have more control over what they teach, the government guidelines could widen the gap between affluent children (often at independent schools, Hall says) and disadvantaged students.
“Some of the kids that I teach only get to have music at all because it's mandated by the curriculum,” Hall says. “They don't get to learn instruments, they don't get to do anything in the performing arts sector unless it's on their timetable. If they stop having that mandated, there'll be so many primary school children who are missing out on it.”
This is going to “really disproportionately affect lower income students,” she says - and that could have wide-spread repercussions. “There are so many things that come with music that'll be missed out on. If it comes down to the rich kids get to do it, and the poor kids don't, that's just fostering more inequality down the line.”
On the other hand, the whole purpose of focusing on maths and English is in order to close the attainment gap, as these subjects are more important for later in life. Hence why Grogan says it's understandable that effort would be spent on catching-up in those areas. “They are the core subjects that underpin everything else and if the attainment gap is going to be closed across the country, it’s important we focus on areas like that.”
Grogan will still teach history, but will only cover three topics, as opposed to four. Whilst this means students will learn “slightly less knowledge”, he recognises that it gives teachers “more time to fill in any knowledge gaps that have occurred during the isolation period”.
“Employers and colleges always look for a C - or now level 4 - in maths and English. So we’ve really got to get them across the line on that.” Hady agrees that these two subjects are of the highest importance. “Getting English and maths as a key to opening up the rest of your life,” he says, “is probably, on balance and grudgingly, more important than you enjoying Year 11 this year.”
“If children don't get their English and maths GCSEs, if they're white they're six times more likely to go to jail, if they're black they're twelve times more likely to go to jail.”
“Not all schools are there just to educate. They're also there to increase life chances.”