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Back to school in 2020

Back to school.   Three words that are loaded with extra meaning this year. 

I don’t really recall how I felt about going back to school after the long summer holidays when I was a child.  I guess that some years I was excited; sometimes I may have been apprehensive; maybe on one or two occasions (in my early teens, when school wasn’t a particularly pleasant place for me) I actually dreaded putting on my school uniform again.   As a young teacher, the beginning of the school year meant a new class, new children to get to know and the promise of new adventures in learning.  As a headteacher, it usually meant new staff to welcome; a new set of senior pupils to help take responsibility around the school; and, once anyway, the arrival of a brown envelope heralding an impending visit from the government inspectors at OFSTED.

It is curious what you do remember.   I can still feel the butterflies in my stomach that I felt in the cloakroom (with coats on pegs towering above my head) when I was seven and starting at a new school.   I can feel the light headedness, pride and joy when I saw my name on the list of prefects posted on the noticeboard outside the staff room on the first day of my final year at secondary school.   I can smell the fresh polish on the floor of the hall in the last school at which I was a headteacher; knowing, with a new job already lined up, that I would probably never wander alone through an empty school again.

I wonder what children and staff will remember in years to come from their return to school in 2020.   Wet, gloopy sanitiser on one’s hands, evaporating quickly to leave that almost icy feeling?  The smell of strong disinfectant in the corridor?  The sensation of experiencing your own breath circulating inside the confines of a face-covering?

Or will the memories cut deeper into the psyche?   Will they be of relatives or friends who have died during the last few months, due to COVID-19 or other illnesses?   Or, more likely perhaps, someone they know being seriously unwell or hospitalised? For many, there will recollections of other types of loss: parents who have been furloughed or lost their job; moving home; transferring to secondary school without the customary end-of-primary-school celebrations; the long-term isolation from important figures in their life such as grandparents. 

Whatever the memories might turn out to be in future years, going back to school this year has ended an extraordinary chapter in young people’s lives.  Just the vast range of experiences that children and young people have had during lockdown is a challenge in itself. And, whilst for some, the school of Mum and Dad may have been a very positive experience, inequalities experienced during the weeks of school closure will be felt for the foreseeable future, as gaps in attainment, physical and emotional health will have widened.

The sudden and unprecedented changes that the lockdown imposed on everyone are likely to have left many children and young people feeling uncertain. As regulations have been relaxed, pupils may have felt unclear about what they were allowed to do, and with whom.  As regulations continue to change, so that uncertainty will increase.

Some young people will feel concerned about the possibility of a second lockdown, others may worry that things which used to feel safe and predictable, such as school, may no longer be something they can rely upon.

There may be a lack of confidence amongst young people in the adults in their lives. As they have seen adults struggle to agree about how to manage the crisis, their sense that they can rely on adults to keep them safe may have been diminished.

And yet…   And yet…   We have watched young people during the lockdown adapt to their changed circumstances with growing resilience, a sense of responsibility and a desire to support their communities.    Food parcels for those shielding have been delivered.  Lawns and back yards have been tendered.   Younger siblings and their friends have been tutored and coached, either face-to-face or over the web.  

Young people have had to call on reserves of inner strength for so many reasons, and they have done so.   They are returning to school as changed individuals, with new expectations of each other and the adults around them.

We should not expect young people simply to view the last tumultuous months as just a blip in their lives.  Just as offices are changing, so schools cannot look and feel the same way as they did before classrooms emptied.  Change will accelerate following COVID-19, even if scant resources make some developments impossible in the short term. Schools cannot go right back to the way things were before, just because the old ways are easy and comfortable (and comparatively cheap).  As I have written in a previous blog post, opportunities exist for real and lasting change.

Maybe today’s young people’s lasting memories of going back to school in 2020 will differ from my own recollections.  They will not just be about butterflies in the tummy or the smell of disinfectant.   They will be that 2020 marked the beginning of a journey to a new understanding of education and learning – to a positive, productive, and optimistic new normal.

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