OPINION: The impact of summer lockdown can be seen in children’s autumn learning

PUBLISHED: 10:51 06 October 2020 | UPDATED: 10:57 06 October 2020

Children now sit in rows and are encouraged not to turn around in classes, says the Secret Teacher. Picture: Getty Images

Children now sit in rows and are encouraged not to turn around in classes, says the Secret Teacher. Picture: Getty Images

Graham Oliver

The Secret Teacher explains the big differences in children since they returned to school in September

Our first month back is complete and we have reached October with all of our class bubbles still present. We are aware of how lucky we’ve been so far, and the sense of being on borrowed time is at the back of everyone’s minds.

The past fortnight has seen the rapid shift of seasons from early autumn warmth to relentless rain and blustery days. Whilst always inconvenient (for everyone, not just those in school) the weather now plays a significant role in our days.

A dry day means we can get outside for more of our activities and is the only real chance that the children get to work in small groups or teams.

It also makes our time in the classroom a lot more temperate. With our windows and doors open for ventilation, these two weeks have been decidedly chilly.

Leaving the external door open is not always practical: the children are cold and anything made of paper (the majority of classroom contents) does not stay where it is put.

There have also been many days of a teacher’s least favourite scenario: wet lunchtime.

Unwelcome at any point, in the current situation, this is very difficult for everyone. The pupils have to eat lunch in their places – the same place where they have spent all morning and will spend all afternoon. Even assuming they sit next to a friend, it is hard for children to have so little variety in their day.

Their learning is affected too. Lunchtime conversations, which normally stop when they return to the classroom, are tending to carry on instead.

It’s hard to create a feeling of “difference” when they have to remain in the same seat, next to the same person they’ve just been chatting to. It takes us much longer to refocus the children and bring the noise levels down before we can begin our afternoon.

There is no physical difference between lesson time and lunchtime, and that spatial barrier is sorely missed. Lessons begin but their minds are still preoccupied with arranging that evening’s game of Fortnite or discussing TikTok clips.

But when we manage to have a change of scene, my class are keen for the novelty of a different setting and a different type of lesson. When we have a circle time discussion in the pre-cleaned hall, I’m surprised by how quiet and attentive they are: looking at the pupil who’s talking and listening carefully to one another.

Seeing their classmates’ faces at the same time is now unusual for them.

From the front of the classroom, I’m used to seeing the children all in their tidy rows, facing in my direction. But for them, they are limited to seeing the face of their immediate neighbour and the back of several heads. (Turning around is one of the many things they’re encouraged not to do, to avoid any face-to-face contact.)

But whatever the weather, our lessons continue. After a gentle start to the term, our timetable is now more or less as it would usually be, and we have begun the lengthy process of trying to fill some of the gaps in knowledge that have developed throughout lockdown.

Most children’s reading skills have held up well, and some previously unenthusiastic pupils have found a great love for books in their time at home. (Again, we are lucky in this, as most of our pupils come from homes with access to books.)

Their recall of maths knowledge is hugely variable. For the pupils who love maths, they have devoted much of their home learning to becoming even more proficient. But for those who were less confident, unfortunately a gap in the continuity of their education has not improved matters.

However, lockdown has caused the biggest impact to my class’s writing skills. From conversations with parents, I know that this is the area which children did least of at home. In school, many of the tasks we set are based around “writing for a purpose”. And no-one can blame them for thinking that posting online work to a remote teacher they hadn’t seen for several months was a motivating purpose.

Spelling is poorer, perhaps due to their use of spellcheck for online work. Sometimes words are replaced with text speak. And our hard-won battle of placing capital letters correctly is set to start again.

But we expected this. The upheaval this year was always going to have an impact on education – and there are positives as well as negatives. Greater time spent with adults and following their own interests has led the children’s general knowledge to increase, as well as their awareness of current affairs.

No learning is lost that can’t be regained, with a little time. So we are staying hopeful that our luck will continue, and our bubbles will remain at school to give us the time together we need.

The Secret Teacher has been a primary school teacher in East Anglia for more than 15 years.

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