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Important lessons from a pandemic in shaping the schools of the future

I am hoping that COVID brings about significant and, more importantly, relevant change to school curriculums, structures and operations. It's high time to scrap the Higher School Certificate (HSC) and explore other options for assessing student achievement.

We can't keep doing what we are doing if we are to meet the challenges of this century. Winston Churchill once said, “To improve is to change, to be perfect is to change often.” We should aim for that perfection; our children deserve it.

The current NSW curriculum just simply doesn't meet the needs or learning styles of many students. In an ideal world, I would like to see the HSC replaced with credentialing that shows what a student actually knows.

About 14 state schools in NSW have committed to Big Picture Education that customises teaching to the interests of the individual and places an emphasis on real-world learning through intensive projects. I have been working with one of those schools, which has 40 students signed up, and I've met with students from across the state who are becoming far more involved in their own education. It is engaging them in new and powerful ways and, in the end, they amass a portfolio to present to a university for consideration.

It won't suit everyone, but in secondary high schools there has to be a place for that sort of learning. Too many of our students just cannot find a way to understand, to enjoy and embrace their secondary learning. Often this is because some schools adopt a one-size-fits-all approach. Students need the opportunity to accelerate in areas where they have an interest and an ability, and to mix more with students with similar interests.

Good schools communicate well with parents and students and help them to build multiple learning paths; they give students a map to their future. But, fundamentally, it is about valuing the student's current abilities and providing them with opportunities to develop their other areas of interest.

It has been highlighted that schools are not working with parents and students to plan educational pathways. They are in this lock step 'there's the curriculum and you have no choice'. Now's the time to give students more choices. Do they need to be at school five days a week? Can they get all the learning they need in four days?

As our nation grapples with the economic fallout of COVID and changes to university fee structures, students need more accurate advice and support from careers advisors and those advisors need to be better selected. We need enthusiastic, helpful, knowledgeable people who offer up-to-date information and are aware of university options but also understand that employment trends change constantly.

Post-COVID, parents want their children to be well educated, able to find employment suited to their capabilities and interests, but most of all they want them to be safe and happy. In any school, in my mind, safety and happiness should be paramount. Unless students value what they are being taught, they will become bored or disengaged.

Some schools have done COVID very well. But not being allowed to have visitors on school grounds has diminished school culture. We've come to realise that school is more than just the teacher in the classroom. It's almost a living thing, with its own traditions and beliefs. COVID has made us appreciate schools more, but they must seize the moment to be more responsive and adaptive. They need to put in place policies and practices better suited to the future that is unfolding before us.

If not, we will see more students vote with their feet. Anecdotally, I'm told there has been a huge spike in families opting for home-schooling since COVID lockdowns ended.

However, at the same time, we need to free our schools and teachers from imposed restrictive bureaucratic procedures that often do little to improve standards but seem to make those at the centre sleep better. If we want our schools to create variable and responsive learning paths to meet student’s needs, then something they currently ‘have to do’ must go. Perhaps the box-tick and often unread ‘school plan’ that public schools must do should be the first!

My school of the future is one that enables students to learn in a variety of ways, that provides a safe and caring environment where individuality is valued. And if we can create these modern, flexible schools where every student really connects with their learning then their future wellbeing and productive place in society will be assured.

Professor James White is a former NSW Education Department regional director for New England and school principal. He is an advocate for investing more in student happiness and wellbeing, and introducing learning suited to the real world.

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