Towards a new normal

Published: 25 June 2021 
Author: Catherine Sutton 
Little girl holds a drawing of rainbow up to a window and you can see a block of flats in the reflection.

Catherine Sutton, PHF’s Head of Programme – Education, reflects on what the TDF projects have learned over the last year and how the productive challenges they’ve faced can help shape a new and better normal’.

This week we had the final learning session for our TDF Round 1 cohort, whose journey began nearly three years ago. To prepare we looked back at notes from their very first cohort meeting, in Autumn 2018, when they were asked to consider in small groups what constituted a powerful learning experience. One group’s answer was Learning is a tightrope; you don’t know when you’ll get to the end, or fall off, or have to go back to the beginning’.

I can’t think of a better way to describe what our all learning has looked like during the year. Our Round 1, 2 and 3 projects have all spent the last three terms walking the Covid tightrope, falling off and going back to the beginning several times as plans have been made, thwarted and reframed. But although this has been a time of enormous challenge, learning has never stopped. Round 1 projects have reached a conclusion and between them there is now a wealth of evidence, understanding and expertise around TDF priorities – developing teachers, embedding learning through the arts across the curriculum, achieving positive outcomes for pupils experiencing inequality and effective school/​arts organisation partnerships. We are looking forward to publishing key findings from CUREE’s evaluation of Round 1 and longitudinal case studies featuring the journey of four schools from this cohort. And we are also excited that Round 1 projects want to stay in touch and contribute as alumni to learning events for other Rounds, building our TDF community of practice.

Multi-coloured post-its with contributions from teachers taking part if a peer-learning session for the Teacher Development Fund. The heading is labelled 'group 2'.
Colleagues share outcomes at the final cohort learning session for Round 1 TDF projects.

Round 2’s tightrope walk has been particularly challenging having been six months into their projects when the pandemic arrived. Colleagues have shown extraordinary resilience in finding ways to reconfigure plans and deliver in different formats. For many projects the impact of Covid on school communities has highlighted afresh the role that arts-based approaches can play in supporting children’s learning and wellbeing, and schools and arts partners have worked together to understand the critical contribution of TDF in this context.

Round 3 partnerships have had a different learning experience. With most choosing to delay their start date there has been an extended time for planning, leading to detailed conversations between the partners and the opportunity to work with our evaluation consultants on theories of change and evaluation frameworks.

PHF’s own learning has been considerable this year. We have continued our programme of emergency support in response to Covid and at the same time relaunched our main Funds. While our interests around education and learning through the arts are unchanged there is a sharper focus on systemic inequality and our priority to support those pupils experiencing barriers to making progress in their learning. A key area of PHF’s new learning has involved digital and blended practice and in Autumn we launched TDF Round 4 with an explicit focus on blended CPDL models. We have made grants to 10 Round 4 projects – our largest cohort to date – and have exciting plans for learning attached to this cohort’s work.

The pandemic has been a time of crisis, but it has also been a time of productive challenge, of questioning what is important and why, and whether the means we employ are having the impact we are seeking. So many times this year we have been struck by schools and arts organisations working in partnership to design their own educative pathways, taking risks and testing new solutions to find the most effective ways to support the needs of pupils.

Looking ahead, it feels crucial that the new normal’ is not a new status quo, but instead a normal’ of constructive challenge, productive partnership, brave risk-taking and, above all, commitment to learning.

Powerful learning is not linear; it is messy; there are blind alleys and wrong turns; one day it feels certain, the next elusive; it is characterised by falling off the tightrope and starting again. The TDF provides a framework for exactly these qualities. PHF is looking forward to working with all TDF colleagues in the next academic year, in our collective ambition to offer high quality and equitable learning opportunities that support the needs of our children and young people.

Catherine Sutton
Head of Programme – Education