It was difficult not to reach for the sporting metaphors, even at the end of a school year when, Covid-19 had hammered school sport into a shadow of its normal self.
In the Euros, Scotland stood up, more than matched anything England could throw at us, and responded to the fact of a scoreless draw with all the euphoria of an historic victory. Then fans returned from London in shared cars and packed planes, or in trains and coaches where social distancing rules were unlikely to have withstood the pressure of the length of the journey or the general bonhomie. Thus, Scotland’s eventual exit from the competition was marked by a sharp upturn in Covid-19 cases. At my school, about two thirds of all the staff and students who tested positive since March 2020 did so in the last ten days of June 2021.
Small wonder we told each other that we were “dipping for the finish line” without thinking about the summer’s Tokyo Olympics. We were even “waiting for the final whistle” without consciously referencing the Euros. I wasn’t sure whether the colleague who replied “I hope it doesn’t go to penalties” was talking about the risk of more Covid cases or the impending England match against Germany.
Fortunately, we were also able to “put the ball into touch” quickly. Almost all state and independent schools in Scotland shut up shop on the last Friday in June, and this year that date was thankfully just about as early as it can be. There was no actual cheering that day, but I swear you could hear the exhalation of the bated breath of thousands of school leaders across the country. It could have been better, but it could have been a lot worse and it wasn’t. A bit like Scotland’s performance in the Euros, perhaps.
“It could have been better, but it could have been a lot worse: A bit like Scotland’s performance in the Euros.”
One of the exasperating experiences of the Covid-19 era has been watching governments across the UK all making roughly the same mistakes one after the other, albeit on their own timescale and for their own reasons. The stand-out errors, like sending vulnerable people back into care homes without testing them, struggling to mobilise effective tracking systems and messing up school exams, have basically been the same. Neither the political complexion of the government nor the organisational structures of its public services have really made much difference.
So, will this be a “game of two halves”? Will our governments analyse their performance, respond to sharp words from their coaches and “step up to the plate”? Sadly, the signs in education, at least, are not good. Much “talking a good game” about supporting children who have missed out on learning has resulted in no “game changer” this summer.
And what about exams? After last year’s attempt to reconstitute the equivalent of the Pools Panel to decide what would have happened if the exams had taken place, this year we’re playing a version of Spot-the-Ball, with teachers asked to use their skill and judgement to decide what grades their students deserve based on the limited evidence in front of them.
“With exams this year we’re playing a version of Spot-the-Ball.”
It has been gruelling work and teachers have undertaken it with great diligence, dedication and integrity. But it’s not the same as having exams and the results will not be the same either. Everyone knows that, but none of our governments will admit it. Until August, at least. And then within a week or so, they all will.
In Scotland, we know that next school year will bring change. International experts have reported critically on how we do education here and, like the board of a beleaguered club responding to a string of defeats, our government has promised to act. It remains to be seen whether they just ditch the manager or blame the players, too. But don’t expect too many resignations from the boardroom.
“We know Covid-19 is not beaten. Do we think it’s all over? Not yet; but soon.”
The last fifteen months have often been traumatic for schools, families and children across the world. School leaders, staff and students have often proven themselves amongst the real stars of their communities, showing leadership, resilience, skill and humanity when it has been needed most. As we head into the summer break, we probably won’t even know the rules of the game for when school starts again. But we know we need to rest, recuperate and prepare. We know Covid-19 is not beaten. Do we think it’s all over? Not yet; but soon.