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Local schools, stronger society

2030, a bright Monday morning, and for most kids a less than 10-minute walk has got them from home to their neighbourhood school for the start of a new academic year.

On the sports field bordering the attractive new school building, children are playing, chasing, milling about and chatting. The bell rings and students file inside. Bar the newest intake of students, teachers know everyone by first name and friendly greetings are called out.

Some teachers cast their minds back to the early 2020s and note how much fitter, healthier and more energetic their students seem now. It’s an observation borne out in statistics: fewer days are lost each year to illness, and attainment has been rising at every stage of education. Antisocial behaviour and youth crime have been falling too.

This is how.

Smaller became better

Smaller became better

Schools presented a challenge when it came to controlling the 2020-21 COVID-19 pandemic. In school, getting kids to practice social distancing, wash their hands and wear masks was hard. And big schools had large catchments: many children’s journeys to school were logistically complex, with coach, bus, train and car travel common. Children picked up and spread infection as they travelled by public transport.

The pandemic highlighted the pivotal role of schools in enabling wider social and economic activity. Schools closed, disrupting children’s learning and social development, and preventing many parents and carers from working. The effects of school closures cascaded across society and the economy.

Around 200 diseases with pandemic potential are continually tracked by the World Health Organization. The harm caused by COVID-19 led to determined action to mitigate the risk from any future outbreak.

One direct response has been to make schools smaller and more community-oriented. A campaign of building activity created thousands of new neighbourhood schools, many with just one or two forms per year group. Local catchment areas became the focus for admissions, with the aim that all children should have easy access from home, with most walking. In 2030, every school is digitally equipped to provide interactive online learning alongside classroom teaching. It enriches routine in-school learning, enables individual pupils to stay connected during prolonged absence, and means that education can continue without disruption if a whole class, year group or school is required to isolate at home.

The primary motive was infection control but the shift brings many more benefits – for children, their parents, and communities – outlined below.

Inspiring change: Collaborating to beat COVID-19

Attitudes to education changed

Attitudes to education changed

The economic and social cost of school closures in 2020-21 reversed a 50-year trend towards bigger institutions.

Money initially targeted at helping students make up lost ground got consolidated into the core school funding model in the early-mid 2020s. The enlarged education budget provided for more, smaller-sized, community-based schools, teacher training and recruitment, improved teacher pay, and improved IT and digital capability.

The result: an upswing in the numbers of people applying to be teachers. As well as there being a greater number of opportunities in more attractive schools, teachers’ social status benefited from the pandemic, which demonstrated the importance of schools as social institutions as well as places of learning. And teaching was shown to be a pandemic resilient career, making it more attractive to people looking for security.

COVID-19 accelerated the adoption of digitally assisted remote working and learning. The legacy has been an appreciation among teachers, parents and educationists of the benefits of digitally-enabled remote and flexible learning. All students have a laptop computer as part of their essential school equipment –broadband connection is provided as a ‘social service’ to poorer households, ensuring no child is excluded. Online resources are interwoven with classroom teaching. Schools are connected and video conferencing between classrooms in different schools is common: lessons and student-teacher interactions have comfortably adapted.

More teachers and digital connectivity mean that no school suffers from gaps in teaching expertise. Video conferencing linking students in, sometimes from many schools, creates the class sizes required to sustain curriculum diversity. Students gain the benefits that smaller schools provide – including better individuated teaching, pastoral care and bonds with the local community – but continue to receive the advantages formerly provided only by the biggest schools: broad subject choices and learning opportunities right across the curriculum. For teachers, digitalisation unlocks new ways of doing the job, providing new paths to career progression.

‘Whole child’ focus

‘Whole child’ focus

The 2020-21 pandemic resulted in a reappraisal of schools’ core purpose. Although a whole generation had missed a significant part of their exam syllabus, it was the loss of social interaction and damage to young people’s physical and emotional resilience that emerged as the greater concern. It remains important that young people can demonstrate to future employers their ability to learn and apply knowledge. But emphasis on curriculum content has reduced and focus on social skills and wellbeing increased.

Schools’ pastoral care has been integrated with social care services in the community with the aim of achieving a ‘whole child’ approach. This encompasses education and physical, social and emotional development. Policies, funding and practices have been geared to ensuring children are healthy, safe, engaged, supported and challenged across all these essential developmental areas.

Digitalisation helps: adverse childhood experiences are recorded by schools, doctors, dentists and social services. Digitalisation brings that data together, enabling abuse, neglect and household dysfunction to be more easily spotted. It leads to earlier exploration of the causes and better-targeted interventions.

Shift to active travel

Shift to active travel

Creating small local schools has happened in tandem with transformative changes to transport policy and planning, as national governments push society away from reliance on petrol and diesel cars. Local authorities and schools themselves set the expectation that students will arrive at school by foot – or scooter, bike, skateboard…

Public realm improvements support this modal shift. There are wider pavements with dedicated pathways for kids on wheels. Some roads have been made traffic-free by installing physical barriers or using timed exclusions enforced by camera surveillance. Streetscape alterations aimed at changing the way people travel have been accompanied by the greening of streets. Planted verges and ‘micro-parks’ have created networks of greenery – public realm improvements that benefit local businesses, contribute to cleaner air, have increased the numbers of birds and insects, and reduced rainwater run-off.

(Green streets are part of a wider embracing of ‘regenerative design’: new building and infrastructure projects are treated as opportunities to go beyond sustainability by working with natural systems and promoting biodiversity. Regenerative principles are being taught in schools too, featuring in design, science and geography curriculums.)

Active travel has had a marked impact on childhood obesity. Right across the age range, fewer children are classed as obese. Health experts anticipate that healthy childhood behaviour will lead to a substantial reduction in weight-related ill-health in future.

The changes have already reduced respiratory and coronary illness, because the twice-daily spikes in vehicle emissions caused by the school run are no more. Eliminating the school run has also reduced road congestion, which is reflected in improving figures for national productivity.

Inspiring change: Back to work in a post-COVID world

Inspiring change: Great places and how to make them

Our tools: Moata Safe Stroll – helping people make better travel choices

Better buildings

Better buildings

The shift to smaller schools provided an opportunity to regenerate neighbourhoods. National government, local authorities, land-owners and developers have worked together to deliver new school buildings, space for outdoor recreation and exercise, and community facilities – IT hubs, libraries and adult learning centres, for example.

Existing large schools have been downsized. Some buildings have been repurposed for community and local business use. With little need for motorised transport, space previously devoted to coach parking and turning circles has been turned over to sports and play areas.

Planning and design have been informed by new standards and specifications for school buildings, outdoor space and the surrounding public realm, again embracing regenerative design principles. Teachers, students and local community members have been consulted throughout the planning and development phases, and strong links with the community are retained – many schools host adult learning, clubs and activities out of school hours.

Buildings are optimised for learning, designed to be net-zero in use, capable of being adapted to future changes in IT and didactic thinking, and efficiently built using manufactured modules that can be reconfigured and ultimately removed and reused, creating no waste.

Thermal comfort, good ventilation and the use of sustainable, non-toxic materials play an important part in everyone’s health, wellbeing and attainment too.

Inspiring change: Reinventing infrastructure: design for manufacture and assembly, and beyond

Perspectives broadened

Perspectives broadened

The cost of children's health, school-run traffic congestion, and economic disruption caused by pandemics are all now factored into the overall cost of raising and educating children. This broader view of the economics of education has helped secure policy support and funding for the shift to small local schools.

The economic case is supported further by the lifetime health and wellbeing dividends, and wider social benefits. By 2030, improving air quality by eliminating the school run and reducing waist sizes by promoting active travel have contributed to an improvement in the health and wellbeing of the population, spanning all generations. Emotional and mental health have improved.

Women have been key beneficiaries of the shift to small local schools. During the 2020 pandemic women were hit disproportionately hard by the double challenges of working from home and home schooling their children. Smaller schools mean that if or when illness strikes and they are forced to close, fewer families – and particularly fewer women – are affected.

Placing schools at the heart of communities and making them learning hubs for adults during evenings and at weekends, supports people throughout their lives in adapting to changes in the employment market and developing the skills they need for new careers. Extra-curricular clubs and classes increase interaction across age groups, improving social cohesion and resilience.

Keeping schooling local and incorporating other social services alongside the new schools has provided better local support for families and strengthened the connection between young people and their communities. Youth crime and antisocial behaviour are in decline, reducing the burden on and cost of policing.

Inspiring change: A four point recovery plan for coming back stronger after COVID-19

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