Thursday, March 11, 2021

Back to school

On Monday children in England returned to their classrooms for the first time since the 2021 lockdown was introduced. I knew that because I heard them clattering past my house on their way to school. There was an exuberant atmosphere, much swinging of bags, slamming of doors and rattling of railings. And there were voices, too. Some subdued, some loud and unruly - but it all reminded me of how these diverse energies are so often overlooked, reined in and brought to serve adult purposes. In this I find myself in sympathy with the work of some scholars and researchers who wish to dislodge reductive accounts of meaning making and even to challenge reductive ideas about what children, learning and school are and could be. Yes, on Monday there was an almost palpable sense of relief. Children were back in school, they were back together, and the event underlined my understanding of how children thrive in each others company as well as through the sensitive guidance of adults. Of course they may also have been some reluctance, let's not forget that there will have been children who were less enthralled by the prospect of school, children who were not excited, were worried, anxious, or just uncertain. But all told, the crucially important function of public education is that it provides spaces for children to be together - not only classrooms and other places designed for learning, but also outside, at the school gate, in playgrounds as well as in corridors and doorways. Such spaces tend to be less regulated, but they are the spaces in which the energy of childhood culture thrives, where children play and interact, often under the watchful eye of adults but not usually through their explicit direction. In this way schools - and primary schools in particular, have always offered so much more than the learning on offer. Unsurprisingly this is a large part of what children will have missed. Parents and children have been thrown back on their own resources these past months, often heroically supported by teachers who have worked under extremely difficult circumstances to provide learning opportunities remotely. All told, being back together feels like something worth celebrating. That said, I don't subscribe to the notion that children are now massively behind, or that they should necessarily be subjected to additional days and hours of study. Those arguments seem to come from the outdated view that children are like empty tanks to be topped up daily with fresh content, a view often held by those who mistake the arbitrary construction of age-related norms for objective truth. If anything, we need something more like the summer play schemes which used to be modestly funded by local government. The school premises were vacant, the curriculum was put to sleep and the normal rules of engagement could be re-negotiated. Volunteer teachers and parents worked informally together to organise games, creative activities and outings for children of all ages. Above all children could be children together in a loosely structured permissive context. What better as an economical and humane approach to healing the scars of lockdown?

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