Listening to the voices of the school system

11 March 2021

“I think we are still learning lots about how we’re feeling and how we move forward from this. I think there’s still a big journey to happen.”


By Ben Gibbs, Co-author of the new Relationships Foundation and Big Change report, which is published today. 

What a moment this is: the big reopening. After nearly three long winter months of lockdown children are seeing their friends, teachers are getting back to the buzz of classroom interaction, and parents once again wave their little darlings out of the house and get back to being mums and dads. 

Amidst all the noise and the clamour of the next few days, weeks and months, it is vital that we don’t lose track of the voices of the children, parents and teachers themselves. That we don’t miss the thoughts, feelings and emotional experiences of those who have been asked to lead the way and take the nation’s first steps along the roadmap. We hope that our new report: Pandemic as ‘portal’: listening to the voices of the school system to inform transformation, provides a reminder of what really matters to the humans in the school system, and what they might need to help them learn, and truly recover, from lockdown. 

“There’s a lot of pressure now, as things go back to normal… It’s like everyone’s trying to forget.”


Whilst the news-media suggests we should be concerned about more important things like catching up on ‘lost learning’ and assessment points, the focus of posts across social media and of my conversations seems to be more straightforward. People are itching to re-engage with the relationships that lie at the heart of their identities after such a long, painful spell of disruption, isolation and separation.

Indeed, it was these relationships that people spoke of the most when we invited them to a series of discussion groups in late 2020 to talk about their experiences of the first lockdown. Using a qualitative approach informed by both systems and psychodynamic theory, we set out to learn how those in and around schools – the parents, teachers and children – relate on an emotional level to one another and to the system of which they are a part, and how this had changed over the Spring of 2020. We also set out to learn about how the lockdown affected their agency as a role-holder in the school system, and their sense of purpose.

The insights are published today in a report from the Relationships Foundation and Big Change. 

“I think the pandemic has shown us some truths about schools.”


What we heard…

That the social and relational purpose of schools is highly valued by students, parents and teachers alike, and was greatly missed during the first lockdown. Just as grandparents are desperate to hold and to kiss and to hug grandchildren, so children are desperate to be back with their friends at school. Teachers have felt bereaved at their separation from the relational buzz of school and delighted by the closeness of the contact they did have with key worker children. Parents have felt betrayed by their children’s experience of abandonment and inspired by teachers’ attempts to maintain contact.

The experience was characterised by all groups as a complex contrast of often conflicting emotions, driven by the need to integrate new roles and form new identities. As parents, teachers and children have become home-workers, key workers, home-schoolers, so the assumed rules of family life, school life and childhood had to be renegotiated. Parents sought clues as to how to do this, looking to their own experience of school as well as to their child’s school. It appears that the nature of these experiences had a significant impact on a parent’s approach to home-schooling, and that school cultures – whether rigid or flexible, punitive or tolerant – were reproduced in the home. Frequent expressions of inadequacy – perhaps reproduced in those mock-Ofsted signs in windows – suggested that this process of identity (re)formation was difficult to bear.

Children in our groups expressed a preoccupation with the experience of isolation, of being ‘stuck’, in ‘limbo’, uncontained and exposed, of missing friends and the ‘buzz’ of school life. They were concerned about being confronted with choices and experiences usually associated with those older than them, and with having to grow up too quickly. We also saw into their sense of loss of school as a space in which they can develop their own identities away from parents and domestic responsibilities.

Parents struggled during lockdown, but their struggle was unequal. All parents to some degree were balancing competing priorities, adapting to new roles and goals, keeping their households safe and secure, battling with technology, maintaining relationships with their children and others in close proximity … the list goes on. But some in our sample were under significantly more pressure than others, and we saw just the tip of the iceberg. There was support for the process of allocation by schools of resources to families and parents who needed the most help, and yet the sense that one (and one’s children) were ‘insignificant’ compared to those ‘in greater need’ was discomforting.

Even under great pressure, many teachers and leaders have grasped a rare opportunity for reflection, renewal and development. It seems that it took a crisis like the Coronavirus pandemic to create a space in which the profession could free itself from a constant cycle of activity to think about its priorities and to try something new.

“Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next. We can choose to walk through it, dragging the carcasses of our prejudice and hatred, our avarice, our data banks and dead ideas, our dead rivers and smoky skies behind us. Or we can walk through lightly, with little luggage, ready to imagine another world. And ready to fight for it.”

Arundhati Roy, Financial Times, 3 April 2020

There is an opportunity amidst all this to change the nature of the game; to rethink how schooling is done, who it involves in ‘delivery’, and what it seeks to achieve. In other words, to take an unexpected leap through Arundhati Roy’s ‘portal’.

Big Change’s support for this research

Big Change supported this research alongside a range of projects designed to help the system learn from this incredible year of disruption. Those projects include:

Big Change is using insights from this work to inform the creation of a new Co-mission on the Purpose and Future of Education, which will be launched with partners in June 2021. For more information on the plans for the co-mission, you can read this blog and/or sign up to receive updates.

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