Schooling during lockdown – which subjects have benefitted?

This post originally appeared on the Nottingham Institute of Education blog.

During lockdown, formal education has continued to be offered in different forms. For many, this has meant a move to home-schooling. For a minority, this has meant attending school in radically reduced numbers with social distancing measures in place. These changes have raised a number of concerns about inequality within education. Some of these concerns are to do with socio-economic disparities, but there are other inequalities that are more implicit and less obvious to spot.  The lockdown has also revealed an inequality between different subjects, or rather the perceived value that some subjects have over others.

Let me explain what I mean.

Teachers and schools swiftly moved to creating and sharing resources online for their pupils. Initially, their work focussed on creating teaching resources and sessions online for their pupils. Individual teachers taught beyond their school setting up YouTube channels and Facebook groups. And then, as lockdown continued, came the more coordinated response from academy chains, such as Oak National Academy and organisations like the BBC.

These new responses seemed to prioritise what I would call ‘cognitive subjects’, others might label them academic or desk-based, or the gatekeeper subjects – the ones that unlock future employment and education. Initially the subjects left out were creative subjects, such as art and design, and design and technology.

This left me asking – why? To begin with, I could understand that the focus was fixed on subjects perceived to be the most important. We are told consistently that everyone needs English, maths and science; a position that is written into policy and made almost indisputable. But in a space of new normality, with much turned on its head, is it not timely to ask whether these cognitive-based subjects are still the most important?

At the same time, I noticed differences in the way people behaved locally and online.

Neighbours asked me to save my recycled cardboard for their children to use to create things and play with; children and adults created rainbows thanking the NHS to adorn their windows (I even did one myself!), Twitter and Facebook became a space for show and tell –clothing repurposed as masks, repaired chairs, new craft skills , whilst others drew or watched others draw. Creativity and creating became normal – the quality was (almost) irrelevant –the focus was on the process of creating and being creative.

I also saw an increase in adults creating and making, which echoes a Craft Council article detailing the benefits of crafting on our mental health. The increased focus on creativity and making was reflected in TV scheduling, like Channel 4’s Grayson’s Art Club and the BBC’s The Repair Shop and The Sewing Bee.

Yet online, in the formal learning spaces, such as the BBC Bitesize and Oak National Academy, design, creativity, art and craft were rarely mentioned. Again, the political emphasis is on education’s purpose for children’s future. It’s about employment, looking after yourself in the future; yet in the midst of the pandemic we were looking for learning that helped us today and focused on the intrinsic value of education and learning.

So why is that of interest to you and me? What does that say about the perception and value of a subject?

We know that creating and crafting has been on the increase during lockdown. Using your hands to make things is therapeutic for all sorts of reasons. The human need for creativity and the arts in the darkest of times challenges the very idea of what schooling is for. The focus through the English National Curriculum has been on the end goal, rather than learning and doing and being for its own sake – the intrinsic value. As Covid-19 has shown to us, our time is precious. It is time to embrace creativity, creative acts both for learning and producing – bringing a more embodied approach to learning back to the front of our curriculum. The times ahead are going to be stressful with the likelihood of a recession. We can encourage pupils to strive for employment and academic excellence, but let’s also help them live for today and understand themselves through the act of creating and being creative.

The idea that there is an intrinsic value to a school subject or to education seems to be forgotten and as we are reflecting on how society has changed maybe it’s time to do the same for education.

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