This article was written by Damian and published in this week's Petersfield Post and Herald editions:
"The autumn term is always an important one in the school calendar. The start of a new academic year signals that annual re-set for everyone – new teachers, new classes, different subjects to study, new and renewed friendships, or even a new school or college to settle in to.
It is also a particularly demanding one, with a lot of content to cover in the longest term of the year, as we move from the late summer of early September to the cold and dark eve of Christmas. Even in more normal times, teachers and pupils alike are by this point very much in need of a break and a chance to recharge.
But this term has been like no other. Returning to school after months of remote learning has certainly been very welcome but also very demanding. Just getting used to the daily routine of school again was challenging for many, and I commend the effort of headteachers, teachers, school staff, students and parents for the huge efforts to make that happen.
The precautionary rules have made school life very different - staying within year group bubbles, avoiding close contact with others, hand sanitisers and masks in some contexts – but I do know that despite this, the vast majority of students and teachers were very pleased to be back in the classroom.
Just as we have all had to adjust to restrictions and the limited social contact we are able to have, it was largely inevitable that positive cases would mean disruption for some at school, with some needing to remain at home for periods of isolation and all the difficulties that brings.
But from January, rapid-result tests will be provided to schools and colleges, starting with secondary schools and FE colleges, including special schools and alternative provision. This will enable weekly testing to be done that will identify those who are carrying the virus without displaying symptoms, and also the capacity to conduct daily testing for those identified as close contacts of others that have tested positive, ensuring that they do not need to isolate.
And with progress on vaccines, we can begin to see some light at the end of the tunnel. This, unfortunately, does not mean a rapid return to normal, and restrictions will be with us for some time yet.
That also means changes to exams next year. Most exams have been moved back 3 weeks, and grading will carry forward the overall extra leeway of 2020, to ensure the 2021 cohort are treated with fairness relative to their 2020 peers.
There are also proposals to give students and schools advance notice in most subjects of some of the topic areas that will come up in those exams. This will allow revision and teaching to be more focused, without undermining the validity of exams. For some subjects, there could also be additional support materials for use in the exam, such as formula sheets.
These are important and significant steps that will enable exams to go ahead and for students not to feel disadvantaged by the disruption to their learning, but of course contingency plans will also need to be in place.
I’m a passionate advocate for education and the need to prepare young people well for the future. The pandemic has delivered a lightning bolt to our way of life and our economy, with some sectors likely to be significantly re-shaped as a result. This will change the outlook for many young people, as businesses adapt and look to succeed in a post-covid world.
We will see new opportunities arrive as some sectors see accelerated change, particularly within the green economy, scientific, digital and high tech fields, and developing the right skill sets for those opportunities will be critical, whether in the classroom, through work experience or indeed apprenticeships.
Education remains as important as ever - indeed more so, and not just for young people. How we enable people to re-train and develop new skills will be as important as core schooling.
In this last week of term, I particularly want to say a big thank you to everyone in our education systems – teachers, staff, heads, governors – for what they always do and especially for what they have been doing in these extraordinary times. I hope we can all look forward to a brighter 2021."