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  • Writer's pictureDavid OMalley

The Pandemic and relational trust in schools

We have emerged, somewhat bruised, from almost two disrupted years of education. And in this new year there is no guarantee that the disruption will end. There have been heroes and victims over the last few years: teachers have risen to the challenge of adaptation; ingenuity has overcome obstacles; new relationships have been established with families and schools have united in going beyond normal patterns in the service of young people. But there have been victims too: teachers have run low on energy, budgets have been shredded and worryingly, the most vulnerable young people have struggled to stay afloat educationally and socially. Supportive family routines have been lost and anxiety has infected many of us like a hidden pandemic.

But something else has happened that may have escaped our notice: Many of the normal standard assessment patterns have not been implemented. Teachers have had to trust their own skills in assessing their students, designing ways to test progress. Educational authorities have had to abandon some of the exam-based patterns and OFSTED has not been as confident in measuring progress during the pandemic.

Some of the shine seems to have gone off the rather narrow assessment-based approaches to school. That is because the motivation to keep schools open, to strengthen the community dimension of school life against anxiety did not arise from a narrowly academic task. Rather it sprang from the deep compassion that teachers have for young people and their commitment to their students’ best interests. Most teachers want their students to do well academically but their energy and satisfaction over the last few years has been driven by a wider vocational sense. Don’t get me wrong, good grades are vital for the future of young people in our complex technical world. But at times, before the pandemic, it appeared the only thing that was valued about schools. Now I sense that there is a more balanced national appreciation of what school communities offer to young people and to the local area.

Our Christian education network, on which the state system in England and Wales was built, has always maintained a broader vision of education than prevails at present. So many religious orders gave their members to establish schools for the poor, ragged schools were inspired largely by the evangelical churches and the Anglican National Society set itself to establish a school in every parish. These schools had many limitations, but they all had a vision of a young person based on the Gospel. They saw young people as lost sheep, as good shepherds of each other, as prodigal sons, and as good Samaritans. They were more balanced, relational and concerned about the souls of young people as much as their as their employability.

So, as we begin a new academic year, I want to quote St John Henry Newman, who was part of the huge expansion of church education in the 19th century. Look at these quotes in the light of our present practice and notice the challenge that they still contain:

It is better to learn a little, but well, rather than pick up a smattering of many things.

Testing can be a very useful way to identify what has been learnt and understood, but if overdone it tends to create a “know it all.”

Reading is to be encouraged, but if done without reflection, evaluation or analysis it can easily become mere self-gratification.

Do not be over-eager for quick gains, as teenagers cannot be forced like plants — each will bear flower and fruit in their own season.

Considerable understanding and patience is required for the fitful process of adolescent maturation.

Newman’s comments come from a more holistic and person-centred Christian ethos that supports the messy progress of adolescents as they learn. There is an implication that education is not just for the enhancement of an individual, their self-gratification, but instead it is for the good of all. It is an antidote to the hyperinflated individualism that has infected our society over recent decades.

Almost twenty years ago Bryk and Schneider isolated one of the core factors in what makes a successful school. It wasn’t money, or good INSET or technology or great buildings, important as they are. It was relational trust. The quality of relationships controlled the quality of education. The relationships involved were those between pupils, teachers, leadership and parents. If a departmental head maintained poor colleague relationships, then teaching standards fell. If a teachers had poor relationship skills in the classroom, the pupils were not motivated to learn. If staff could not maintain good relationships with parents, then the more vulnerable pupils would suffer. If pupils had poor interpersonal skills then peer pressure would have a negative impact on learning.

No assessment techniques, no classroom skills or school development models can make up for the deficit caused by a lack of relational trust. Over recent years our schools have experienced an erosion of trust in schools because of the focus on the measurable outcomes of education. The contribution of these economic models has been beneficial but, because we human beings tend to focus only on what we can measure, we may have put relational trust into the shade. As we begin 2022, with all the evidence of schools managing the pandemic, building relationships, supporting families, running food-banks, supporting the elderly and raising funds, perhaps we have an opportunity to re-balance the measurable outcomes and the un-measurable relational aspects of our schools.

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