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Mind the gap

by Mark Bocker

It’s a phrase we used to hear over the echoing tannoy when getting on and off trains.

Lately however, it has become the focus of many, many school leaders, teachers and parents considering the impact of school closures on children’s progress. Concerns revolve around perceived difficulties addressing the gaps that may have been created in the chronology of children’s learning pathways.

Many children will have devoutly followed the online learning opportunities, devoured work set by teachers supplemented with additional support from parents. Some of those parents are already qualified teachers, some are on a journey to become teachers and some are just looking into the abyss!

Magnificent response

There has been a magnificent response from teachers and schools across the UK in creating links to a huge range of online learning and resources. Most recently, the Chartered College of Teaching has done amazing work in collating these resources to make them even more accessible. The DfE has stepped up with Oak Academy and the BBC has increased its Bitesize offer.

It is possible for a family without any experience to create a more formal learning timetable which, while never being the same as ‘live’ classroom teaching of course, affords some certainty and structure to their child’s daily routine. Indeed, many parents and teachers, on reflection of perceived positives, may wish to consider online opportunities in greater depth once we begin the transition back to reopening schools. There are certainly some who will consider home schooling as a future option.

A recent phone call questionnaire suggested however that only 10% of children were making the most of their opportunities up until the Easter break. Furthermore, only 25% were fully engaging with their schoolwork regularly. These statistics are largely anecdotal, of course, and will vary hugely across the country but nevertheless will cause concern.

Poll variations

Indeed, a straw poll randomly sent out in a tweet came back with a figure more like 60-70 % were regularly engaging but rarely for the equivalent of a full-time timetable. So, retain some scepticism for the time being I would suggest.

One of the factors we must consider in future – and with some immediacy if things are not to deteriorate still further – is access to the requisite technology and high-speed internet access. It is clear that a large number of young people do not have adequate access nor receive the appropriate support.

But, is this the only gap? Which groups of young people are most affected and how will we plan for meeting their needs once reopening becomes a reality? Is it the academic gap? If so, teachers will focus on years 10 and 12 (and their equivalents in Scotland) to ensure a speedy catch up in preparation for exams in 2021.

Or, is it the transition gap bringing children who were due to move between reception to primary; primary to secondary; GCSE to A level; or preparation for university, FE or apprenticeship. Each of those groups will require a detailed focus. Or, might the focus be those young people who have had varying degrees of support who may have fallen even further adrift – those children from our most vulnerable backgrounds? In addition, we might want to consider the gap of closure from one transition to another and the respective celebrations which have been lost?

Lost connections

While many will have received a high level of support, many, many children do incredibly well just to attend school because of the challenging life experiences they have to cope with on a daily basis. With this in mind, it is worth considering the most valuable of all gaps which exists for ALL of these children be they children who have needs in respect of their academic progress, transitional arrangements, special educational needs or social and emotional vulnerability.

Connection is needed from those people who meet and greet children every day, care for them, teach them, feed them and send them home with a smile. The professional, highly committed staff in every school who are there to provide support, consistency, continuity and security provide connection. Every minute of every day. And, the number of connections is critical. In a normal school day – oh, I so wish for one of those – children might expect hundreds of interactions with people committed to their futures and aspirations whereas now, those interactions are heavily reduced. Notwithstanding this, there will be fears. Fear of what is happening to our world. Fear of losing loved ones or, god forbid, the experience of bereavement.

Our final focus will be linked to all the aforementioned in one way or another. What has happened in our children’s lives between lockdown and reopening schools? That is a narrative which will take time to unfold and be effectively managed. Therefore, my view is simple. Make the first part of our planning for reopening our schools be to meet and greet every single child with the biggest smile we can muster! Let’s do everything we can to listen to them and hear their story, their fears and their concerns. Let us re-establish the connections with kindness, empathy, understanding and optimism.

Recover first

Everything else will fall into place eventually but relationships need reigniting. Futures need to be made real again. We have to recover first and catch up second.

“Be humans first and teachers second,” as Jaz Ampaw-Farr said. And, it needs saying loud and clear. This is not going to be easy. It needs, above all else, school staff – every single one of us – to be ready. That means a huge element of our preparation will involve us re-connecting and looking out for each other, hearing each other and supporting each other before we return. Only then can we truly be ready to mind the gaps.


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