Re-imagining education in Northern Ireland

An argument for returning children to the stage of education from which they exited: a compassionate and practical approach to reopening schools after the COVID-19 lockdown in Northern Ireland

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The Context

“The truth is that we will not see a return to all of the normal ways of living we had before the pandemic in the short to medium term at least. This pandemic has affected all of our lives in multiple ways and it will take a whole of society approach and collective effort if we are to minimise its impact, and then make the best possible recovery from it.”

These words from the Ministerial Foreword of the Northern Ireland Executive’s Coronavirus Executive Approach to Decision Making illustrate how the coronavirus pandemic has changed all of our lives in a matter of 10 weeks and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future.

It has created the greatest challenge to our education system since its inception, but it just might also be handing us the biggest opportunity of our time, the chance to deliver on commitments to “transform the school education system and deliver better outcomes for all our children and young people.

Education is a fundamental social and cultural right which promotes understanding, peace and tolerance and plays an important role in reducing poverty and health inequalities.

Could we ever have imagined that we would struggle, in this developed, well-resourced part of the world, to deliver on those obligations?

And yet our schools are closed, our 341,456 school age children are at home and the extent to which any of them can be said to have access to the national curriculum, or the teaching expertise and pastoral care systems which facilitate that access, is unclear.

The Sutton Trust’s ‘School Shutdown’ report (April 2020) finds that only a third of children in England are taking part in online lessons every day. Those figures rise significantly for middle class families and for private schools. Leading NI academic, Dr. Noel Purdy, Director of the Centre for Research in Educational Underachievement at Stranmillis University College, has warned that:

“The current lockdown and the differentiated experiences of home-schooling have the potential to further disempower and disenfranchise, thus exacerbating the social injustice of an already deeply divided education system.”

Should we be surprised? Only a month before lockdown, the Marmot Review 10 Years On reminded us that over the last decade, health inequalities across the UK have widened, child poverty has increased and frighteningly, life expectancy for the poorest 10% of women has actually declined.

We have entered this pandemic with educational inequalities too and we need to start planning our exit with the acceptance that those too will have widened.

Conversations about phased return, staggered start times and enhanced remote learning provisions have helpfully already begun. The need for flexibility is acknowledged at the highest level. Education Minister, Peter Weir MLA, has said:

“Whenever schools do return, it’s unlikely that this will be on a business-as-usual basis, […], at all times, the well-being and safety of our pupils and staff would be our key priority.”

There is an acknowledgement that a return to education as we have known it is a long way off. Perhaps that is a good thing. Much of what we have come to accept as ‘the way of doing things’ merits review and this pause in provision may be an opportunity to reconsider our growing class sizes, our transition arrangements, how we meet special education needs, wellbeing for pupils and staff, and, perhaps most critically of all, why we continue to have a compulsory school starting age which is lower than the European average by almost two years.

The threat of coronavirus is far from over and its impacts will span, if not define, the childhood of the youngest in our population. We need to look for solutions in a wider body of evidence and practice. We have much to learn from disaster recovery and trauma informed practice in particular. We need to respond with an education system that is itself resilient and in turn supports the development of resilient children, families and communities.

What if we stitched a silver lining?

In his recent blog, Jack P. Shonkoff, M.D., Professor of Child Health and Development at Harvard University and Founding Director of the university-wide Center on the Developing Child, urged creativity in our collective responses to COVID-19:

“This is a moment in time for all of us to stretch the limits of our abilities and the boundaries of our creative capacities. […] The question is not whether we will get through the ordeal that lies ahead—because we will. The important questions are how well we can work together to protect all young children and their families and how much we will learn from this unprecedented challenge and make necessary changes for the future.”

I think we can do more than protect our children, families and teachers. I think we can and should commit to a societal act of kindness that gives them the best opportunity to restore their relationships, recover their learning, skills and confidence and to realise their full potential.

Instead of pushing our children forward into another year or tier of education, when they have not fully benefited from the last, let us please consider returning them to the stage of education from which they exited.

Before I lose you, this is not about holding children back and ‘making them repeat a year’. It’s about holding them in mind and acknowledging that during the academic year 2019/20 schools were open for 7 months instead of 10 months, that we are anticipating a total closure period of 5-6 months before children and young people return to school-based learning, routines and support, and that when they do, the academic year 2020/21 could effectively be cut in half through phased or part-time return. A new USA study looking at what summer learning loss can tell us about the potential impact of school closures on student academic achievement makes grim reading. 

This is radical acceptance of the unprecedented circumstances in which children, families and teachers find themselves.

Let the infant who went home from a pre-school setting in March 2020 return to the sand tray and dressing up box and their preparations for primary school. Let the Primary 1 child go back to the story mat and the Bear Hunt and that brilliant triangle pencil grip. Let the Primary 7 child get their school trip and their confidence boost and their proud farewells. I won’t labour the point with secondary school illustrations. It’s a simple premise.

It’s not, however, an inflexible proposal. Rather, it’s a starting point for wider discussions and a different perspective from which to forward-think the social, emotional and academic trajectories of our children. They are not a homogenous group.

Children in early years, at key transition stages, children with special educational needs, young people living in adverse circumstances will all experience COVID-19 differently and have their own unique emerging needs. We need to take the time to identify those needs and ensure no child is left behind socially, emotionally or academically.

Reconnect, Recover, Reimagine…

If we have learned anything from our previous experience of trauma and loss in Northern Ireland, it should be that the best ‘new’ beginnings are facilitated by engaging in honest conversations, taking responsibility for our actions, showing compassion and making reparations.

Expecting our children to walk away unscathed from this pandemic is unrealistic. We have a collective responsibility to help them to heal.

Children learn and grow through their relationships with others. We need to allow them to reconnect with their peers, as a means to buffering stress in the short term but also for social and emotional development in the longer term.

This is particularly true for our Primary 7 children who should not be expected to simply ‘move on’ from those key relationships at such a stressful time in their lives. Teachers will also need and want to support those children who have suffered most, through anxiety, bereavement, neglect or abuse.

Getting used to new ways of making and maintaining connections, through social distance and remote learning, will also take time and be more taxing on children so we need not to rush them or our teachers through those efforts.

We could make a significant start on this process of reconnection by issuing clear guidance asking teachers to contact their pupils and families, individually, weekly, until school return. Every contact leaves a trace.

There is a clear acknowledgment that, despite all our parental, school and community efforts, not all children will have received appropriate learning opportunities or access to the curriculum during lockdown.

An entire term of the school year has been interrupted. If we lived in Finland, of course, our youngest children would not yet be thinking of holding pencils, practising phonics and learning to tell the time. So we can well afford to ‘let them be wee’. Indeed, it is our youngest children who need this pause the most.

We have already invested much in infant mental health and in a well-balanced play-based curriculum for pre-school and foundation stage children. We cannot simply ‘bounce’ them past and through these fundamental stages of development without anticipating detrimental impact both in the short and longer term.

For older children, the leap from junior education up to GCSEs or indeed to A-level is already a big one that requires huge personal commitment, family support and educational guidance.

In 2018/19, only 54% of Year 12 children in non-grammar schools in Northern Ireland achieved 5 or more GCSE grades A*-C or equivalent including English and Maths.

In subjects like mathematics or languages, much of the knowledge and skills are sequential and cumulative so unique challenges are presented that simply awarding them a grade as a passport to proceed does not resolve.

There may well be an argument for flexibility, where senior pupils in Years 12 and 14 have received all of the teaching associated with their qualifications and now have stable and supportive offers of learning, training or employment to progress into. We also need to consider what we already know about wellbeing, mental health and youth unemployment in making that call.

All our pupils deserve the chance to reconnect and recover lost learning before being asked to step up to the next educational challenge.

If we move forward from that basic premise, it’s entirely feasible that, far from being a minimised version of what we knew before, the academic year of 2020/21 could provide an attuned, responsive and individualised educational experience which supports children and young people in realising their full potential.

Our commitments to help children realise their full potential

We’ve already committed in our Draft Programme for Government 2016-2021 and in our Children and Young People’s Strategy 2019-2029 to give every child the best start in life, but the “ambitious programme of transformation” promised in the latter has been stalled.

The Programme for Government indicators on children reaching their developmental milestones, achieving academically, succeeding in training and employment and experiencing less inequality of outcome will be significantly impacted upon by the decisions we take now.

We have a real and present opportunity, and perhaps even the political will, to reimagine our education system; how and what it delivers and for whom.

Leaders in education are already engaged in cross-government efforts, under the auspices of the Safeguarding Board for Northern Ireland (SBNI), to bring trauma informed practice into our systems and make it the daily, lived experience of children and families who engage with us.

The templates for a trauma informed response to COVID-19 in schools and other educational organisations exist. We don’t need a pilot or a case study. This is live participatory action research! We need to monitor impact as we go, test and learn, share what’s working and red-flag any structural or system responses which marginalise the most disadvantaged children and increase their vulnerabilities.

There are immediate financial implications of course, for holding this cohort of children in place rather than progressing them on through system. For parents hoping to re-enter the employment market as their child enters pre-school or school. For exam bodies. For universities. But the potential long term financial and human impact of mal-adjustment and poorer outcomes for the most vulnerable children, their families and the systems which support them must also be taken into account. Going forward, our compulsory school starting and leaving ages would be shifted by one year. That would only bring us more closely into line with England, Scotland, Wales and the Republic of Ireland. Food for thought.

Whatever their age, giving our children and young people time and space to reflect on the huge and sudden changes in their lives, reconnecting them with close peers as well as familiar and trusted adults and supporting them to rebuild their social, emotional and academic confidence and competencies will have both individual and societal benefits.

Schools can provide the “safe haven” for that adjustment and healing to occur, simply by giving it the focus and time it requires.

We can imagine the fulfilment of our efforts by reference to the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child in its General Comment on the Aims of Education (2001):

“Education must include not only literacy and numeracy but also life skills such as the ability to make well-balanced decisions; to resolve conflicts in a non‑violent manner; and to develop a healthy lifestyle, good social relationships and responsibility, critical thinking, creative talents, and other abilities which give children the tools needed to pursue their options in life.”

If there is a rights-based and trauma-informed argument for not returning children to the point of education from which they exited, let’s hear it.

This paper is intended to support critical thinking and debate. The Minister for Education has invited stakeholder engagement. National Children’s Bureau, like our many colleagues across community and voluntary sectors, will engage constructively in efforts to reopen our schools and will help ensure that the voices of children, families and those who support them are heard in the debates that must be had.

As adults, we are all mediators of children’s rights and obliged to act in their best interests. If we are balancing those rights and interests against wider economic or societal arguments, let us put that on the table too so we can have an honest conversation about what the implications of that are for our most disadvantaged children and young people.

  • Deirdre McAliskey is an Assistant Director at National Children’s Bureau in Northern Ireland and a member of the UK-wide What Works Centre for Wellbeing Advisory Panel. Mother to two young boys, she has a Masters in Human Rights Law and is a Doctoral student of Childhood Studies at Queens University Belfast.