Three inevitable factors will present as features in schools whenever, and in whatever format, they reopen.
By Dr Brian Fleming
A period of serious disruption can prompt reflection on current arrangements which in turn can lead to positive policy change. Some are optimistic that the impact of COVID-19 on our education provision will lead to a significant period of reflection and improvement. I’m not so sanguine that this will result, certainly in the short-term. My hopes are fairly limited, and they are compounded by the uninspiring nature of the education section of the Programme for Government.
On a more optimistic note, I imagine that there is a more widespread understanding in the community generally of the important societal role that schools in disadvantaged areas play, as well as their educational one.
Hopefully, that will lead to a greater priority in resource allocation for such schools.
Also, the rush by the Department of Education and Skills to place its trust in school personnel to administer the predicted grades process for the Leaving Certificate is interesting. In light of the implementation of an accountability model that is based on mistrust of teachers and principals, it was a hugely ironic development. It would be hugely beneficial if this attitude of trusting teachers were to continue into the future.
The focus of recent commentary in the educational arena centres a lot on re-opening arrangements and the practical changes that will need to be made to ensure student and staff safety. This is, of course, entirely understandable even though at the time of writing what the re-opening arrangements will look like is not very clear. One thing we have learned during this pandemic is that two months is a long time. While I fully understand the anxiety of principals, and others, to get clear direction now, it may be unrealistic to expect much detail. Presumably, when the picture becomes clearer, full guidance based on health grounds will issue and funding will be provided to implement whatever practical arrangements are necessary.
In the middle of all this uncertainty, I would suggest that three inevitable factors will present as features in schools whenever, and in whatever format, they reopen.
Firstly, there will be a huge range of student wellbeing issues to be addressed, including some quite serious ones.
Secondly, teachers will have to deal with a wide range of educational challenges.
Finally, these two factors will impact most seriously in disadvantaged areas.
So, DEIS schools will need to be supported to help their students deal with this unprecedented situation, not just in relation to practical issues based on public health advice but also in relation to pastoral and educational provision. The focus in this piece is on post-primary but I’m sure similar issues arise in primary schools also.
Teachers in DEIS schools, including those with specific roles in the pastoral area – such as counsellors and year heads, regularly find they have to spend considerable time and energy, when students return after a break, in dealing with issues that have arisen in the meantime. This applies even after a short break such as the Easter holidays. So, we can only begin to imagine what they will be faced with after one lasting over five months. DEIS schools are already struggling to meet the counselling needs of their students so this will place them, and those who need their help, in serious difficulty. No way comes to mind for estimating how different the picture will be from that of a normal school re-opening. But greater numbers seeking assistance is both inevitable and worrying.
It may be possible to cast a more detailed light on the educational picture that is likely to emerge when schools re-open. We can assume that generally speaking, in recent months children from underprivileged backgrounds will have enjoyed more limited access to the necessary technology to participate in remote learning. Even where this wasn’t an issue, other home circumstances are likely to have limited some students in their efforts to engage with schooling. So, the already disadvantaged will now be even further behind their peers than previously. Even in ‘normal’ times, summer learning loss is a well-established phenomenon, with poorer children suffering most. What faces students and schools now is this pattern, but at a more significant level, with even more serious long-term consequences.
More or less every day, some government department announces a cabinet decision to assign millions of euro in extra funding to assist a particular industry or sector to recover from the difficulties caused by the pandemic. These ‘rescue packages’ are both understandable and welcome. We need the same now from the DES. In my view, each DEIS school should now be advised of an additional teacher allocation for the next academic year. At a minimum, the additional allocation should be at least 10% of the current one and adjusted upwards to address the grade of disadvantage a particular school is facing and any other local circumstance.
Trust the Principals and Teachers
I have seen suggestions for dropping non-examination subjects and extending the school day. I don’t agree that a top-down approach like that is what’s needed. Give the schools the additional resources and leave it to those on the ground to decide how they are to be used. They will know best where the greatest need is and will be enabled to respond appropriately whether with additional counselling support, smaller classes, homework clubs, and the like. In other words, trust the principals and teachers to do their best to respond to the needs of their students and support them to do so.