What we ration grows in value


The experience of millions of parents battling with home learning may help schools when children return.

By restricting freedom and limiting exercise to once a day, the government has inadvertently raised the value of physical activity. In an incredibly short space of time, that hour of exercise has become precious. Indeed, we feel short-changed by the daily ration, whereas back in January, most of us would have been thrilled to be getting out running or hitting the gym even twice a week.

Scarcity ascribes value to something we previously took for granted. What we ration grows in value. When wheat is scarce following a period of drought, bread prices increase. As petrol becomes scarce when there’s threat of war in Middle East; so oil prices rise. Cod becomes scarce through overfishing in the North Sea, and we all pay more for our fish & chips. A shortage of exercise time simply means it increases in value and meaning. By making exercise time scarce, it has become so much more attractive for children. Who knows, the last 6 weeks might just do more for the health of the nation than the sugar tax.

Faced with juggling ‘lockdown learning’, an hour of exercise and keeping track of their child’s emotional health, parents have had to adjust. Home learning, which began as a well-intentioned laptop frenzy, transitioned to something more balanced for children, more do-able for parents and more realistic in terms of learning. All day power-point makes Jack a very dull boy indeed. Professor Thomas Dixon of Queen Mary’s College, primary school of governors and leading the ‘Developing Emotions’ project for emotional literacy in schools tweeted:

“Based on the first 4 weeks of home-schooling, I’d say the most important things for my children’s emotional health are: (1) Physical exercise, (2) Art, (3) Reading stories, (4) Online contact with other kids. We are squeezing in some maths, writing and nature documentaries.”

Younger children have begun managing their own workload and planning their learning with family in a way that we haven’t seen before. Some parents have even trialled beginning learning at 11am and finishing later, inadvertently testing whether this is when the teenage brains ‘wakes up!’ Even my two sons, older and unexpectedly home from university/work, have discovered a balance of learning, exercise, music and electronic contact with friends which works for them. We’ve all been learning how to manage.

In schools we have a non-negotiable system in place to create necessary order, but at home children have been empowered to discuss timings with parents and plan a day that works for them. They may have planned lengthy chunks of creative time, immersing themselves in long periods of ‘flow’, that happy state of absolute focus. This allows unhurried time to try challenging tasks instead of being passive in their learning, as is so often the case in school. In education we have talked about developing independent learners for years. Well, the perfect opportunity to explore this is finally here. Clanging bells and hour lessons and corridors movement means schools are less well set up for this. Some children have discovered that they are at their creative best thriving on these longer blocks of learning time, and will be hungry for them. Others need the tighter structure, in short bursts.

Many teachers are reporting a large number really thriving in solitary work – because of the lack of distraction, less teacher-talk and without the ever-present pressure of comparison right at the desk next to them. It will make sense to capture this success with more independent study periods or opportunities. And because some children have thrown themselves into new topics with excitement, some Y9s may wish to rethink options on return.

But it wasn’t long in most homes before running shoes were pulled from the attic and bikes collected from the cobwebbed corners of sheds. Tracksuits that haven’t seen the light of day for months have been seen walking or jogging around the block, and record numbers of cyclists are peddling the streets. Children have designed obstacle courses in their gardens and explored local parks where they can. They have been given the freedom to be physical in ways that don’t neatly fit into the normal pattern of netball, football or rugby. In other words, children are self-regulating and becoming the driving force for fitness, as each day they tell us parents ‘time to get outside!’

Why is this significant? Well, the DFE’s weekly recommendation for school PE in the UK stands at a minimum of two hours in secondary schools, and only 75 minutes for primary. Few schools offer much above this because more time in PE means less time in English and maths. This year’s focus on a broader curriculum diet is the right thing and is shifting this straightjacket slightly, but there is still too little non-classroom physical activity. Compare the school weekly average of 1-2 hours (including changing time) with what is happening at home right now where many kids are active seven hours a week. Add to this the fact that a number of schools have shortened lunch and break-time (this is often where supervising behaviour is a challenge) and we have a mismatch between what we have in place and what feels the right thing to do now.

Screen Shot 2020-05-04 at 12.58.18

This statistic compares average time in minutes spent in schools on sport and exercise per day by gender in OECD member countries (plus China). Black = girls, blue = boys. Of 2016, Germany was the only country in which the average minutes per day spent on sport and exercise were the same for both genders. 

This statistic suggests that something needs to change. Children will want it, and the country needs it. Cracking the obesity epidemic may just be one of those unexpected gains we take from Covid-19. This could be an opportunity for school leaders to lead on health. A few years ago, faced with the challenge of poor physical stamina and rising obesity in Scotland, St. Ninian’s Primary in Sterling introduced the ‘Daily Mile’, a walking exercise where all children complete a specially built circuit, adding an extra 15 minutes of exercise to each day. Since it was introduced, 3600 schools in 30 countries have taken up the idea. Already many school leaders have been working with their parents as ‘researchers’ and reflecting on what we have learnt about children’s routines, their brains and their bodies.

But we are not just talking about PE. The outside world has been made a scarce resource and children are experiencing nature in new ways. The spring sun has helped. Sir David Attenborough claims:

“Every child born into this world has an innate pleasure, delight, interest and curiosity in the natural world.”

And yet in 2011 the BBC reported that 95% of outdoor education centres had their entire local authority funding cut. Poorer children began missing out on nature more than ever before. There are many sources of learning outside the classroom: with great resources through the RSPB, the National Trust and their ‘Things To Do Before 11 ¾’. Now would be the perfect time to harness this appetite.

This crisis is an opportunity to pause and consider what it is that we really value, which determines how we want our children’s learning time to be spent. As parents we hand our children over to schools in the firm belief that teachers teach them exactly what they need to know: a rich school curriculum which is deeply debated and passed like a highly-prized baton onto the next generation. This year schools have been rewriting the shape of this. We cannot teach everything. Choosing one thing means leaving another out, and the principles by which we select are key.

But the education system is driven from point of exit: a back to front, end-on, exam-focused system rather than setting out right at the start what we believe children should know and be able to do. This is due to the pressures of results in English and maths, performance tables rankings and Ofsted which prevent headteachers from making bold decisions about what is important for children. So if we want heads to respond to what we have discovered this year, now is the time to reflect on the purpose of the regulator, performance tables and redesign how they function in the future. We are at a significant and opportune moment: exams have been cancelled and the world hasn’t stopped spinning.

So three things should happen:

  • Schools need to listen to parents. The best schools have been in close dialogue with parents over the last six weeks, gathering feedback about how children are doing, what learning have they enjoyed most, how have they learnt best and what will they need help with when they return? These conversations will influence what school leaders do next.
  • Schools need to allocate time for children to be more physically active and continue to develop the independent habits that have worked for many over these last six weeks.
  • Ofsted and DfE need to press pause to free headteachers to make the right curriculum decisions in the interest of children and based on what we value, not to satisfy end-point performance data.


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