“The danger is going back and doing the same things the same way”: GTC Scotland’s Kenneth Muir insists education system must change post-Covid
Teachers in the education sector have demonstrated tremendous flexibility as schools across the UK have been forced to close in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, with only a select number staying open to accommodate limited numbers of pupils who are either vulnerable or children of critical workers. Addressing how the education sector in Scotland has thus far charted its own course through the crisis, The General Teaching Council for Scotland’s chief executive Kenneth Muir pays tribute to teaching professionals for their show of commitment, but insists that to serve future generations well, the sector must learn its lessons from the pandemic and resist reverting back to old ways.
The route out of the coronavirus outbreak for schools remains unclear. The central government at Westminster has declared its intentions to ask primary schools to welcome back children in nursery, reception, Year One and Year Six, alongside priority groups, from June 1. Meanwhile, secondary schools, sixth form and further education colleges have been requested to offer face-to-face support from that date to aid the remote education of Year 10 and Year 12 students, who are poised to take key exams in the next academic year.
Yet, in the case of Scotland, first minister Nicola Sturgeon has been very clear that the different constituent countries of the UK may look to lift lockdown restrictions at different stages, while headteachers and unions even in England have been clear that plans to reopen schools as early as the start of June may not be feasible at all.
Amid the uncertainty, there remain as many questions as answers over what the state of the world and the education sector will be post-Covid. At a societal level, as Muir highlighted in his keynote address in the latest edition of the Teaching Scotland magazine, it has been suggested that the pandemic could change our world and how we view globalisation, with travel and shopping habits potentially set to change forever and work patterns also altering with new use of technology bringing about increased working from home or perhaps the onset of a four-day working week.
Of course, with the reduction of travel, carbon emissions are coming down for the benefit of the environment, while other commentators, as Muir points out, have highlighted a more compassionate and empathetic society emerging with a heightened focus on the mental health and wellbeing of friends, family and the community, as well as a renewed emphasis on keeping Earth healthy.
Muir says: “I sincerely hope…above all others, [this] proves to be true.”
Steering away from speculating over the future, Muir sought to address some aspects which he believed to be true in his address to the profession, and he hailed the moral purpose and commitment of teachers which for him has shone through throughout the crisis.
Muir said: “There is no doubt in my mind that teachers and others in our education system have shown commendable commitment and flexibility in adapting quickly to the closure of schools. Many have moved their practice overnight from in-class teaching to one that involves them delivering learning almost wholly online.
“That change has not been easy for some [students and their parents as well as teachers] and it certainly hasn’t been helped by the inequalities in students’ home learning environments but it has been impressive to see how the teaching profession in Scotland has risen to this challenge.”
Professor Graham Donaldson stated in Teaching Scotland’s Future that teaching “should be recognised as both complex and challenging, requiring the highest standards of professional competence and commitment”. It suffices to say that in Muir’s view, the reaction of many parents on social media who have had to muck in with their child’s home learning in recent weeks has shown an appreciation of how high the demands are when it comes to being a good teacher.
Muir added: “There have been some well-meaning suggestions about how ‘gaps’ in the teaching workforce might be filled during this crisis. What needs to be remembered is that being registered with GTC Scotland provides absolute assurance that anyone involved in delivering learning is well qualified to deal with the complexities of teaching and adheres to stringent standards of competence and conduct.
“Such requirements must be maintained – even in a time of emergency. Our Professional Standards and Code recognise the complexity of teaching. They ensure we have a teaching profession in Scotland that engenders complete trust and confidence, where high-quality teaching is maintained and where the learning of our children and young people is protected.”
In Muir’s view, what adapting to remote working in recent weeks has revealed is that the world we live in is highly “interconnected”, perhaps more so than initially realised. To engage with this interconnectedness, he believes that the curriculum may be in line for change to ensure students can understand how interconnected the world is and effectively engage with it.
Elsewhere, the way education has faced the crisis raised other questions, such as the extent to which technology and science may have a greater emphasis in the teaching of future generations, while the advent of online education could see the role of educators, including teachers, change fundamentally.
Muir said: “If anything good is to come out of the Covid-19 crisis it must surely be that it is raising questions about what our future education system might look like. To what extent will technology and science take on greater significance in educating future generations? Will resilience and adaptability be promoted up the league table of life skills needed for future citizens? With the increased realisation that learning can be no more than a mouse click away, do we need to redefine the role of educators? Will the increased respect given to the way in which the profession has responded so impressively to the crisis make teaching a more attractive career to pursue? Might our national examination system change radically?”
During the period of self-reflection that has come about as a result of the crisis, the education sector would do well, as Muir suggests, to consider the answers to these questions over its future very carefully.
Furthermore, the renewed focus on sustainability brought about by the pandemic has highlighted why Learning for Sustainability forms an integral part of GTC Scotland’s Professional Standards, as Muir highlights. Another piece of evidence which suggests, therefore, that this period of self-reflection and heightened awareness could well pan out for the greater good. In light of this, Muir stressed that it is vital that - although the UK population and that of the wider world lives in hope that the Covid-19 pandemic will end before too long - the desperation for the light at the end of the tunnel should not mean that lessons learned from this experience are left to fall by the wayside.
“We all live in hope that this cataclysmic global event will soon come to an end. The danger, of course, is that all of us in education go back and try to do the same things in the same way as we did. That most certainly won’t be learning the lessons from our Covid-19 experience, nor will it serve future generations well.”