Why should schools remain inflexible when children themselves want more flexibility?

Atif Mahmood, CEO and founder of Teacherly, explains why 73% of children in Britain would like flexible learning options when schools return

With September and the new school year drawing near, it was interesting to see the Children’s Commissioner for England recently discuss her recommendations for putting children at the heart of planning for future lockdowns. In a briefing earlier this month, Anne Longfield OBE listed some key principles – including how children’s perspectives must be better reflected in scientific and public health advice, how education should be prioritised above all other sectors, and how every child has a fundamental right to education.

This briefing resulted from several local lockdowns implemented across the country, and amidst debates about the government’s plans for schools nationwide come September. The prime minister is adamant that all schools will reopen, while teaching unions have questioned the safety of doing so. Rightly, this livened debates about whether pubs and non-essential shops should be allowed to stay open – particularly when the risk of infections is high enough to warrant local lockdowns in some cases, leading to further educational disruption.

While these are all extremely important debates to be had, I can’t help but feel that the perspective of children here has been missed entirely. Similarly, all of these debates have made me question why are we still so adamant that the traditional model for schooling – whereby large groups of children need to be physically present in one location five days a week – is the only way in which children can access a great education?

‘A progressive new era’

As with enterprise, education has had to fast-track its ‘digital transformation’ and become workable for everyone remotely. This has led to the development and implementation of some fantastic remote learning platforms and has given both teachers and pupils the chance to learn new digital skills that will be extremely valuable for them going forward. It has also allowed teachers and children to benefit from some of the flexibility that others enjoy – like taking advantage of more productive working and learning hours and balancing these responsibilities with other activities that contribute more to wellbeing. Teachers and pupils have been shown a new way to deliver and receive education, and I would argue that this has propelled the sector into a progressive new era that it would be a shame to abandon now.

With this in mind, we really wanted to understand the perspectives of school pupils in Britain within this new context, to see how they have experienced remote learning and what they would like from education moving forward. In asking over 500 pupils for their opinions, we discovered that almost three quarters (73%) of these children would like more flexible learning options when they return to education. Over the course of the last few months, children have adapted to learning from home and over half (53%) said they would now welcome the idea of a ‘virtual open school’ – where they can learn through online courses and lessons alongside attending traditional lessons. Over a third said that they simply like the choice that this flexibility would provide; allowing them to learn in a way that best suits them and their needs on any given day. If a child feels they will be safer and more productive learning at home, they should be allowed to do this without any detriment to their education.

Work-life balance

We also found it interesting to learn that 42% of these children now want to be able to balance learning with other activities that make them happy – like spending time with family or devoting more time to a hobby. This is a significant percentage of pupils showing awareness of the benefits of a more flexible learning environment. What it has really brought to life is the fact that children are individual human beings, each with their own ways of learning, of which lockdown has perhaps made them more aware. A traditional school setting does indeed remain important for learning and building relationships, but it’s also true that some children have actually thrived whilst being home-schooled and are much happier as a result. This is important, as pupil wellbeing and readiness to learn are so closely linked.

Having collected these perspectives, it seems clear that more investment should be made in developing better remote learning platforms and helping schools implement more flexible options so that they can further advance within a more ‘progressive’ era for education. The younger generations are driving a more flexible future, which is something that can benefit education greatly if more disruption is on its way. If schools are given the support to enable them to function just as well remotely, there will be less need for debate and pressure on the education system to reopen in the traditional sense. Protecting the rights to an education should start by enabling children to have an education wherever and whenever they need to access it. Children themselves are calling out for this change and making strides towards it will undoubtedly be positive for the future of the system.

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