For the education sector, 2021 was a year like no other. School leaders planned for closures, reintroduced online learning, planned for reopening and managed many interruptions along the way. Blended learning became a way of life in schools today and most importantly, teachers learnt to become more flexible in their approach, in coverage of the curriculum and also in assessment.
For obvious reasons there have been huge leaps made in the quality of digital learning in schools. Teachers have become more proficient in the use of technology, not only in relation to enhancing the curriculum, but also in assessing children’s understanding and achievement.
Schools have also invested in hardware with one-to-one use of iPads, Chromebooks and other devices becoming more common. As a result, outcomes for pupils are much higher because they have been exposed to more creative and dynamic teaching and learning.
Mental health and wellbeing of children continues to be a priority for all schools as we head into the new year, and this has now gone beyond simply providing PSHE lessons and a quiet space for children to seek sanctuary during the school day. Many schools will have full-time counsellors or coaches and a full programme of support in place for both children and parents.
It has become essential to ensure proactive pastoral care; to spot the signs of poor mental health and intervene, rather than to wait for pupils to seek help. Work with external agencies is also more seamlessly embedded into schools’ processes so that professional help is quickly available.
Knowledge-based curriculums are no longer enough
It has become apparent that knowledge-based curriculums are no longer enough. Likewise, the propensity for a skills-based method is not fit for purpose. Schools are now finding a balance between the two and are teaching knowledge-rich curriculums which also develop essential skills for life.
It is now far more acceptable to see the importance of this approach rather than simply preparing children to pass exams, at whatever age. Without doubt, this will continue to be a lively debate as we move into 2022.
The challenges of 2021 have, of course, been plenty, and well-documented, but schools have coped extraordinarily well. Right to the very end of the year, leadership teams and teachers have been battling with government guidance, an increase in positive Covid cases, anxious and disgruntled parents and increased workload due to blended learning and other exigencies.
The majority of online learning in independent schools during the spring term closure was of a very high quality and this meant that children’s levels of attainment were maintained, and progress was evidenced despite eight weeks of school closures.
Undoubtedly, nothing substitutes being in school to learn but the real problems stemmed from a lack of socialisation and being part of a school community. Many children felt isolated and detached from school life and missed the sport, art, music and co-curricular activities that enrich their days.
This has been the biggest challenge for schools; to build kind, respectful and purposeful communities again and regain the excellence in sport, performing and creative arts.
Post-lockdown parent intervention has led to increased pressures
This last year has been a challenging year for everyone and many parents are now viewing their children’s schooling through new eyes. Parents have had greater involvement and oversight of their child’s education during online learning and this approach now continues, which can place additional pressure on staff.
Understandably, parents are keen to ensure that no gaps in their children’s learning have occurred and many are resorting to private tutoring and placing greater demands on schools for intervention, catch-up sessions and additional support.
Throughout this year we have learnt that the majority of teaching staff are resilient, exceptionally hard working and adaptable. Furthermore, they want to provide the best possible education for the children they teach, no matter how that may impact on their own wellbeing.
It is now the job of school leaders to ensure that staff workload is manageable and that they are not placed under significant or unreasonable pressure. For some, it has simply been too much, and they have reassessed their priorities and decided to leave the profession. Most recently, it has been school leaders who are leaving the profession in significant numbers, and this is a very worrying situation.
Many teachers are extremely loyal to their schools, colleagues and pupils. Staff retention is key to ensuring that schools retain a balanced, experienced and committed common room. Staff need to feel valued and to enjoy their roles to the full.
This requires school leaders and governors to look at all areas of school life: teacher workload, pupil behaviour management, appraisal systems, salary scales and benefits, along with CPD and career enhancement.
Leadership and entrepreneurship training will come to the fore
We are all hoping for a normal school year in 2022. A year in which changes and improvements can be embedded and built upon as well as a year to fill any gaps and provide much-needed consistency. Schools will continue to look at assessment and tracking of progress to ensure it is manageable for staff and purposeful for pupils.
Forward-thinking schools will look to incorporate more leadership and entrepreneurship training into their curriculums with greater emphasis on independent learning, problem-solving and future skill development.
Dependent on space and geographical location, there will be further development of outdoor learning, forest school provision and school farms too. Children need to develop empathy and greater responsibility and animal therapy can be the perfect way to achieve this.
Digital learning will also continue to develop both in scope and innovation. Schools will start to explore the use of VR and there is no doubt that this will become transformational over the coming years.
In terms of teaching skills and specialist training, as we head into 2022, although by no means new, more teachers will become mental health first aid trained, and we will see a general proficiency in this area amongst teaching and non-teaching staff. It will, I hope, become a must-have qualification in the role and become part of annual safeguarding training across all schools.
Technology and coding in the spotlight
From a technology perspective, as mentioned, online learning in most schools is now very well developed in terms of the technology and how it is used by staff and pupils. Advances will come in the way that it is used to achieve the highest outcomes for pupils.
The increasing ability to teach whole classes and individual children, the ease of facilitating small group work and quality provision for assessment for learning will all come to the fore.
Coding is a huge area for development, which will require greater resourcing in schools and staff training. It is imperative that all children are able to code and extend their skills to the highest level. This goes far beyond the basic programs such as Scratch, and this will need specialist input from a teaching perspective.
Coding will become far more cross-curricular too, which is so important for children in seeing how it can be used in everyday situations for them to have greater exposure. This is likely to become increasingly embedded into curriculums and schemes of work, once teachers are better skilled.
Children must be front and centre of everything we do
Admission to independent schools has benefited from the pandemic in various ways. Initially, the online provision in the maintained sector was not of a high enough standard in many schools and a number of parents made the jump to the private sectors.
This was less of an issue in the second lockdown, but further restrictions led to many parents reassessing their priorities. They wanted more space and greater opportunities for their children, often only available in independent schools, plus the disruption to learning had led to a number of different anxieties amongst parents.
There is now a far greater need for an individualised approach, smaller class sizes and greater contact from the school. Parents want to be involved in their children’s education and to be part of the school community.
The removal of sport, music, drama and the creative arts during the school closures and lockdowns impacted children and parents negatively. There is now a renewed thirst for children to be involved, learn new skills and grow in confidence and independence. Again, for independent schools, this is often their bread and butter; they have the staffing, resources and time to make it happen.
We would need a crystal ball to predict how schools can best prepare for 2022. Who could have predicted what we have been through, implemented and achieved since January 2020? One thing that is always a constant is the need to ensure children are at the front and centre of all we do.
If schools continue to prioritise pastoral care, mental health and wellbeing and individualised programmes of study and assessment, then they will not go far wrong. Added to this, an innovative approach in always questioning what we do, looking to improve in all areas and never resting on our laurels.
If we follow this, 2022 will be a successful year in which children thrive, teachers continue to enjoy their roles and parents support our efforts by working in true partnership.