The return of almost normal

Published: 16 November 2021 
Author: Johanne Clifton 

Johanne Clifton, Director of Curriculum and Virtual Learning for the Elliott Foundation and TDF Advisory Group Member, looks back on what we have learned through the pandemic and how the arts can create new and innovative opportunities for teaching and learning.

Ask any teacher about the best part of coming back this year. I am confident they will say being back to almost normal’. Hearing children out in the playground, opening doors in the morning to children simply walking in as they arrive and being able to work in groups again. Teachers can even go to the staff room instead of communicating via screens from their bubbles. I was moved when a head told me a boy asked where he could play. The whole playground of course’ was the reply followed by an excited shout as he ran out across the field to join a group of friends – together. There have been Autumn fairs, plans for Christmas performances and the return of choirs and music lessons.

Quite simply we have missed the joy of being together. Covid-19 brought with it the unique cruelty of making dangerous all that we love and gives us hope. To sing together, play music, dance, simply run across the playground and be with whoever you want. Each of us felt like we had the potential to be dangerous, toxic to those that we love the most. I met one child afraid to go outside when there were others in the street. No one can bear the return of all of this. I know head teachers will do all that they can to rally their communities and try to keep them safe. But this time, it is different. This time we know what we can do.

Throughout the past 18 months we have worked creatively to find ways to connect and share. On our return, we have continued to use technology to develop innovative ways of teaching. We have maintained rich relationships with parents and carers by sharing open ended tasks that they can upload to school platforms and so be more equal partners in their child’s education. Many of us have taken the time to interrogate our curricula and develop new, more interesting plans by thinking more deeply. Teachers have owned their professional development and followed their interests to bring back new skills to the classroom. Artists have led digital creation through film, story, dance and music and this, in turn, has upskilled teachers in their knowledge of what is possible. Schools have made links across regions to share celebrations, including an academy trust-wide dance to welcome the giant puppet, Little Amal, on her journey from Syria to highlight the plight of refugee children.

Our biggest worry in schools continues to be for our most vulnerable. Children with special educational needs and disabilities have suffered most in this period. Services have been variable and many have not had the vital support they need. All schools are reporting that there are high levels of need in the early years, in a way that they have never seen before. Again, the arts can show us what is possible. We plan to work with Open Theatre to learn the skills of non-verbal communication – one way in which we can improve how we work with our young people that we would not have known about before.

You see, we have hope and we have learned so much. We know that things will change and get better. The arts help us to grow around our losses and value what we have learned. It moves me to tears even now hearing children sing together. Such a simple thing but it reminds me that we know what is important, even when the world of schools feels too much. We know that we need to keep thinking big and looking beyond the horizon, not staring at the ground chasing short-term intervention and catch-up programmes. The arts sector are our real partners here, ready to show us what is possible and how we can get there together.

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