Updated: Jul 5, 2020
Ask any number of young people what they want to do when they grow up these days and an increasing number will tell you that they "want to be famous". However, when you enquire further, that is to say, you ask them "Famous for what?" they have little or no idea. Many of those that do have ambitions, while they are laudable in one sense, they are also somewhat, if not entirely, unrealistic. One young man I tutored many years ago, for example, had aspirations to be a world-class swimmer and win a string of medals at the 2008 Olympics. In the end, he never made the grade. But he did become a first-class coach and helped many other young people realise their dreams. He had a Plan B. And it worked out rather well.
My own Plan A back in the 1980s was to be the next Andrew Lloyd Webber ... or, actually, Tim Rice. I would have settled for Dave Arch's job - he's the guy who leads the band on Strictly Come Dancing - or, maybe, a single in the Top Ten, like one of my other role models, Howard Jones. In the end, I've had to settle for putting on a couple of musicals and choral works that I've written in local churches while earning my crust as a teacher. It's OK. Sometimes it's better to keep the thing you're most passionate about as a hobby rather than the main way you earn your living.
When I was a Sixth Form tutor, I always talked to my tutees about 'having a Plan B', i.e. "What are you going to do if you don't manage to get AAAA* in your A levels and/or Cambridge turn you down?". It wasn't meant to suggest that they weren't capable of attaining their goals, just getting them to think about their safety net, so that, if they fell at the last hurdle, they would have something to fall back on. An offer of AABB from a less prestigious university, for example.
So, yesterday, we heard from the Education Secretary what the government's Plan A was. Everybody back in school in September. No rotas. No part-time attendance. Bubbles of up to 280 children (that's going to need a very big wand and lots of washing-up liquid). Fines if you don't show up. Stay two metres away from your colleagues and don't spend more than 15 minutes with them. Testing kits to be provided for schools. Rows facing the front. Staggered start times. Improbably large buses that can accommodate 70+ children without any of them sitting next to one another (I suggest you start by taking the wings off a Boeing 747 and see where that takes you if you can even get it on the road).
Excellent, Mr Williamson. Truly aspirational. A wonderful ambition to have. But realistic? I don't think so. What will you do if the COVID-19 virus intervenes and means that you, too, 'fall' in September, or November ... or sometime next year? Just blame it on us for not following the (impossible) guidelines?
Where is your Plan B, Education Secretary? What are you going to do if (and probably when) there is a Second Wave of the disease in the winter months? You will be forced to close schools yet again and send pupils back to their homes for another lengthy spell of remote learning - which, for many, turns out to be remote dossing about, often through no fault of their own. A spell for which there is no coherent plan in place. We cannot revert to a system where only the children of key workers and vulnerable students get any face-to-face time with their teachers. There needs to be a way in which everyone can at least spend some time in school. There needs to be a routine, however infrequent actually being on-site turns out to be. A rhythm to the week/fortnight/month that gives students and staff some sense of routine rather than the current open-ended, constantly changing state of affairs we have in place currently.
This is what I have designed by coming up with the concept of Cyclical School. Contact-limited, local, accessible, sustainable, and scalable education provision. Not so long ago, the only switches we had for our lights had just two options - ON or OFF. Our bicycles, too, had just one gear. Now we have dimmer switches to control our lighting and bikes with so many gears that you need a degree to ride one.
Why can't education be similarly adaptable? It doesn't have to be ON or OFF.