Time to strike a New Deal on Education and schools

What the COVID-19 school closures have taught us that we should use as a springboard for renewing education.

Schools have been closed for minimum one month all over the world. Teachers, students and parents alike have ample experience of a new way of living, working, learning and teaching. With only a few countries making the move to re-open their schools yet, this is a great opportunity to ensure that education and schooling does not continue as it did or rather did not work in February. It is a unique opportunity to revisit education provisions and to strike a New Deal on Education that is in line with the need of today’s children and offers schooling and other professional education services according to the needs of families and children. All we need to do is catalogue things we have missed and those we haven’t, the ones that were easy to leave behind and what we want to have again, what we liked and what we hated, what was helpful and what was not in these past few weeks, as well as before.

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NewEduDeal at a glance

School as a place for social learning

What the overwhelming majority of children miss these days, is being together with their friends. In countries luckier than others, children gather in parks and playgrounds. Schools that are closed have opened their own grounds for the local community and offer the possibility of meeting. This is the feature of schools that needs to be preserved in the first place: learning to live in a community.

To achieve global educational goals in equity and inclusion, schools also play an important role in learning to live in a diverse community. Most families have regular relationships with people who are more likely to be similar to themselves than very different – in their cultural background, traditions, level of education, etc. -, so the family offers an educational environment that is not very diverse, while children need to live in a diverse and multicultural society. Schools are key in offering this learning experience. But this is only possible if “academic achievement” – whatever is meant by this notion – is made secondary to social learning and learning to learn.

Schooling at home?

If there is one thing teachers cannot deny these days, it is the fact that the overwhelming majority of parents are schooling champions. Parents have invested time and energy to provide the necessary schooling to their children regardless of technical difficulties, having to cater for 2, 3 or more children all at different stages of schooling with different support needs. Do not be mistaken: the current situation will not result in a boom of home-schooling. Home-schooling is a decision only a few parents are ready to make, the majority will still want to make a deal with schools to support them in educating their children. This deal is about schools doing schooling and parents educating their children in other domains.

At the same time, a huge number of parents had to go deep into the vaults of their own memory to recall notions they had learnt at school and have never used again in order to help their children to learn the same things today. What we need to revisit on the basis of this is what we mean by necessary schooling, what is to be learnt by all and what can be offered to those interested, what the basic skills, competences and knowledge for the future of our children are. This is an area where we can learn from homeschooling parents in order to strike this new deal. They are generally conscious about their decision to not follow current and overly academic national curricula, and they are aware that for real, deep learning, less content is more.

Well-being in learning

Based on the experiences we have had in the last couple of months, we clearly need to rethink what is beneficial for our children’s well-being and what is not. These days show us how important it is to bring arts back to their rightful place in our priority list. People sing, dance, draw, sculpt, write tales and diaries with a little or much more time at hand, and this helps them to stay mentally healthy under pressure. Sports and time spent out in the open is similarly important. People – wherever not prevented by government regulations – have found the form of physical activity that brings them pleasure, be it running, walking the dog, playing basketball or using the numerous hopscotches springing up in their neighbourhood. Pressure will ease or change, but we will still need these activities supported for a higher level of overall well-being.

A huge number of people are using extra time available for learning new things. Some started a new language, some have taken up hobby classes, some even a new degree course offered online. What the unifying characteristic is that they enjoy doing it. It offers an opportunity to emphasise the need to bring back the joy of learning to schools. Research shows that children starting school often lose their curiosity even in a matter of weeks. Content is not engaging, their creativity is not rewarded, they are under- or overchallenged. We can use current experiences to redesign learning at school to make it joyful, to challenge our children to an extent that brings them into the right state to learn (and not overchallenge to discourage them), but also brings them rewards that motivate them to continue. At the same time, there is also a need for school to recognise and support non-formal and informal learning that generally have these elements. In the case of informal education at home, professionals have a responsibility to support families that lack skills to play the right games not necessarily for learning per se, but for well-being in general.

There is also a need to rethink school schedules. In countries where it is made possible and in families where work schedules allows it, people seem to start the day later. Children populate playgrounds when the weather is nice, but not before 10 in the morning. People with flexible schedules go shopping and do sports from about the same time. When schools reopen, it could be the right opportunity to abolish early start. School can still open to cater for care needs and offer breakfast clubs, but child well-being levels would certainly increase by starting later. Similarly, families all experience that children learn better and more willingly if they have time to be immersed in solving a problem or overcoming a challenge. Children of different ages help each other and learn an incredible amount by revisiting earlier studies. This can be a good starting point to rethink 45-minute lessons and class organisation by age.

Testing and trusting

It was interesting to follow the news and see how ready some school systems where to abolish standardised tests, and how ready many teachers are to do so in systems that want to hold on to them. They argue that it is for the health and well-being of children to abolish them, and we could not agree more. Since schools have already collected ideas on replacing these tests, it is a great opportunity to use the replacements – mostly based on evaluating student effort over a longer period of time – instead, if there is an agreement that summative assessment is necessary at all. The best deal would be to only have formative assessment in a new education deal aiming at real learning. This is also a great opportunity to introduce inclusive ways to reduce competition stress. We all know that some students are very competitive but in a formative assessment regime they can still compete – against themselves. For the overwhelming majority of students, this would be the opportunity to experience real and deep learning instead of learning for the test.

This makes it necessary to bring the issue of trust into the equation. We have parent reports from all over Europe and beyond that they are spending a huge amount of time creating evidence that their children are doing their school assignments. The evidence they provide is not about learning, it is to put teachers at ease that they are teaching. In a new education deal we must learn to trust the learner, and challenge them enough for real learning, but teachers also need to trust the family. The best time to start is now, having enough proof that children do learn and parents do educate – and at the moment even school – them. At the same time there is a need to rebuild trust in the professionalism of teachers. Many have passed the exam with flying colours, but about as many have failed. This clearly shows a need for more focus on continuous professional development as well as coaching and mentoring for teachers.

Teachers’ interaction with families

What we have experienced was teachers complaining about children not submitting assignments or having no contact with them, parents demanding much more from teachers or complaining about too much pressure on children, and children being in the middle not really understanding what is happening to them and why. But, at the same time, parents have also complained about teachers not being aware of the fact they are away working and thus not being able to school their children during usual school hours, having assignments that made it necessary for 2-3 children to use the family’s only computer at the same time that parents also needed it for work, but also having to extensively search and study to help children do their school assignments. What appears to be missing is a thorough knowledge of families’ circumstances on the teachers’ side and an honest discussion on what is important and what is not.

In many countries there used to be schemes that made it compulsory for teachers to gain an in-depth knowledge about the families of children they teach. In most countries these schemes have been abandoned and even banned. If a family trusts a school with letting their treasure of a child to be taught there, teachers must have the professional expertise to build the necessary trust for them to be allowed into the family and learn about it to an extent that is necessary for their work as teachers. A good teacher does not teach grammar or chemistry, but teaches children, and for that you need to know the whole child, including backpacks they carry due to outside-of-school circumstances. This must be acknowledged as part of a teacher’s working time and duties.

Digital tools and their use

The current experiences also made people and education stakeholders rethink the role and use of digital technology. Most of those people who had been digital luddites earlier, have started to appreciate the advantages. People dancing or playing music together can now clearly understand the difference between passive screen time and using the screen for being active. Being connected digitally is the only link to others for many at the moment, and we can only hope this connection will be kept as an auxiliary one when everybody can restart face-to-face interactions. Digital alternatives can help us to reduce pressure on the environment by making choices between necessary and not-so-necessary travel, while keeping a healthy level of physical interpersonal contacts.

At the same time, it is clear that the school system is still learning. There is a need for teachers to become more proficient using digital platforms and tools, to explore how digital technology can bring more playfulness into learning and to find a healthy balance between digital and traditional. There is a need for school leadership to limit the number of platforms used and to limit them to ones that offer the necessary means for data protection. Teachers and families also need to learn more about data protection and privacy rights. The huge number of shared photos and teachers’ demands for photo/video proof of studying clearly shows this.

We need a new deal in educator roles with open communication

We have a great opportunity to use the leverage of the current situation for the so much necessary rethinking and renewing of education. UNESCO published their vision of education that can lead to delivering on Sustainable Development Goal 4: quality, inclusive education for all back in 2015, demanding a shift towards tackling education as a common good with shared responsibility for educating and learning. In 2018 the World Bank published research data showing that this is a very timely demand as school systems fail to provide children with basic skills, knowledge and competences.

These past months have proven that parents, families and schools can share the responsibility for schooling needs – with some families in need of more external support – but they do not necessarily wish to do so and they have every right to leave this with schools. Parents and families have also had the opportunity to experience what the contents of schooling are, and that clearly leads to an understanding of the World Bank research results. It is a blessed moment to start from the very base and decide on what the necessary basics are and what share of jobs in delivering education is satisfactory for professionals and those legally responsible for children to actually learn what they need, their parents and guardians. Schools are closed in most countries and now we have an opportunity to only go back after we have changed what they have to offer.

What’s next

In the coming weeks Parents International is organising a series of online discussions on the topics we have identified as key ones. We have invited researchers, practitioners – teachers, school leaders, parent leaders, social workers, non-formal educators, student representatives –, business representatives and policy makers to reflect on these topics. Follow our social media channels or send us a message to participate.

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Media contact: Eszter Salamon, Director

e-mail: director [at] parentsinternational.org

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