Building bridges

08 May 2020

Sally Bacon, Executive Director, Clore Duffield Foundation and founder member of the CLA writes about looking after the corona class of 2020, and why cultural organisations must keep the lights on for learning.

The human stuff

As my son, like countless other students, watched all his GCSEs evaporate in front of his eyes in March, he was reflecting on the value of school and what it means to him.

The first thing he said was ‘I always feel safe there’, before he talked about the value of seeing all his friends, and being with teachers he likes and gets on well with, and who encourage him. Years 7-11 were already receding in his mind, being packaged and weighed up and considered. He may have been part of a 100% terminal exam system he never asked for, and which was ultimately too flawed and fragile to withstand a crisis, but he did so within an environment where he valued the people and the sense of security they gave him as paramount.

Those teachers will be there for him when he returns for Year 12, and he has two more years before he will leave the safety of school. Geoff Barton of ASCL is keenly aware, like my son, of what’s important now: ‘My hope is that we come out of this more strongly demonstrating that it’s the human stuff that matters in education – the relationships, the socialisation of young people, the sense of an older generation preparing the next generation’.

Corona class of 2020

The next generation have a great deal to be prepared for. One of many bleak news items recently has been that years of educational gains achieved in closing the attainment gap have been blown away by the Corvid-19 crisis. And history has shown that young people are the worst hit through economic downturns, particularly school leavers, so this must be a concern now.

The Resolution Foundation, an independent think-tank focusing on public spending, inequality and poverty, is asking what the challenges will be for what they are terming the ‘Corona class of 2020’ – a generation which already had austerity and climate change underpinning their formative years. But as our Chair Jacqui O’Hanlon observes in her CLA blog, all the school leavers of 2020 will suffer: the Year 6s, and the Year 11s, as well as the Year 13s and those leaving higher education this summer.

The CLA has always championed a right to culture for every child. That is the flag under which it convenes, but in reality there are two sides to the cultural learning sphere: half sits in education, and half in the cultural sector.

As our Chair notes in her blog, we work to ensure that every child can participate in high quality arts and cultural learning experiences, but we never imagined that children’s cultural experiences would – for a period of several months – be limited entirely to their homes, and dependent upon the digital and practical resources they have within them. Inequality for children has been magnified in lockdown, and has been much harder for to schools to mitigate.

Keeping the lights on for learning

Schools will reopen, but for a cultural sector full of public spaces, the transition to welcoming people once more will take much longer. One of the paradoxes of Covid-19 is that despite all the arts everyone, of all ages, has made or appreciated or valued during lockdown – whether books, films, music, TV, dance, art or broadcast performances – the arts sector is in great trouble now, with its income all but extinguished for some time.

The performing arts – a sector defined by its audiences as much as the work they come to experience – will find it hardest, and will be one of the last sectors to re-emerge. For all that the arts are cherished, fundraising for them in a pandemic will be extremely challenging. But in the ongoing struggle for organisational survival in the arts sector we need to ensure that all the learning and participation work so carefully built up over recent decades doesn’t evaporate along with this year’s GCSE and A Level exams.

In New York MoMA has let its entire learning team go; museums in Vienna have done the same. How many learning teams were instantly furloughed here? My hope is that many are still busy focusing either on helping schools or children at home now, or consulting them about how to work best with them when schools return. The new message from the Roundhouse in London is not that they are struggling – that unquestionably goes without saying – but is this: ‘Our doors may be closed, but we haven't changed. Young people are still at the heart of everything we do.’

A wise colleague recently reflected that the organisations we will remember and value after this are those which have helped others. This reminded me of a statement within the CLA’s original ImagineNation publication a decade ago, from the then director of the Sage Gateshead: ‘It is more important to invest in education for a civilised society for the future than to entertain ourselves now.’ He might now wish to reword this to say that it is as important for an organisation to invest in education, or support its community, as it is to adapt to survive.

Learning audiences may be back in schools long before wider society begins to normalise, so they are crucial audiences to connect with, particularly if we want to help schools to provide creative outlets for their pupils as school structures are rebuilt.

The organisations I am valuing now are those that are remaining true to their values, and prioritising their communities and young audiences; thinking about what they can offer them; talking to teachers and young people and finding ways to support them now or in the months to come, with their learning, and with their wellbeing. Clearly their staff can’t do that if they’re furloughed.

Bridging the gap

Those secondary teachers my son values will now be working hard on plans to help their pupils catch up as they return to school, and this will be particularly vital for the Year 10s and 12s, and the incoming Year 7s. But they have also come up with a brilliant plan for their Year 11s.

For the last weeks of my son’s Year 11 his state secondary has created a ‘Bridging School', to replace online lessons during what would have been the exam period. This four-week course has been designed by the school to facilitate learning in the sixth form subjects that students expect to take, and to help them to choose their A Level/B Tech subjects if they are not already decided.

These online lessons, along with tasks, resources and materials, will provide students with the opportunity to equip themselves with some skills, competencies and knowledge that will ease their transition between KS4 and KS5. The lessons will be followed up with small group online tutorials where students will be asked to comment upon their weekly endeavours with a course tutor. All students not intending to stay at the school will be given a large bank of tasks and resources aimed at improving the generic skills that they will need at KS5.

It occurs to me that this is what we could all do with now: some considered bridge building between our pre-Corvid world and the new and altered world on the other side. The exigencies of the pandemic are driving great craters through our carefully constructed societal edifices, revealing unprecedented divides and vital dependencies. But our teachers will be there to help all our pupils adjust and move on, and to catch up. We need to hope that the same will be the case for our arts organisations – and that they will be working on their relationships with schools, and building those bridges now, before it’s too late.


One Reply to "Building bridges"

  1. Thanks Sally I found your article really pertinent. My son has also missed out on his GCSE exams – which he hoped to do better in then his mocks! Anyway, my comment mostly revolves around the fact that he wants to study dance & drama and music A-levels. I’m really concerned about how those subjects which involve group activity (dance and drama) are going to be taught when social distancing is crucial. It’s a blow for young performers hoping to forge a career in a notoriously competitive industry – what’s left of it after Coronavirus.

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