I was in the Soho Theatre last May, watching comedian Rob Auton perform ‘The Talk Show’. He told a great joke. It’s hard working from home, he said, when “the only solid work colleagues are the table legs.”
It’s been three years of table legs for me. I founded SHAPES - an education agency that supports organisations, including publishers, in making meaningful connections with new audiences of teachers, young people and their families - in 2017 and celebrated its third birthday in May this year, right in the middle of lockdown. It was a happy milestone. We created a video full of nice messages from the people we have worked with. All my solid workmates were in attendance.
It’s true that for all the supposed freedom that comes from setting up on your own, there’s also something strange about working from home (if someone could see into your life, what would they think?) – something very isolating, too.
Suddenly, in 2020, it’s as though everyone understands. I haven’t just had the table legs these past few months; I’ve had the entire rest of the world for colleagues.
The first time I felt overwhelmed by the situation, I was in Tesco. I piled a few tins into the basket, even though I didn’t really want anything in any of the tins. If I bought rice, what was I going to have with it? Beans? By the time I reached the middle aisle, everything was suddenly absurd. I checked what everyone else was doing. How many tins do you need to outlast a global pandemic anyway?
I realised in the middle aisle that it could never, it would never, be enough. So I left without a single thing.
A few days later, I tried again. I emerged with a few apples, beans, and some tinned peaches. This was progress. This was also the first lesson of lockdown: progress is measured differently. I wondered if I could get used to a world in which a tin of Tesco Peach Slices (Light Syrup) – not consumed since I was perhaps eight years old – can indicate a great personal victory?
While everything became heightened, with anxiety through the roof, and friends and family members struggling, facing personal losses, losing work or losing their jobs, the only mark of progress was to find positives in the very smallest of things.
Working for SHAPES has meant seeing the struggles on both sides, for both publishers and schools. There have been huge challenges for businesses and organisations creating content in a vacuum, with limited resources and uncertain outcomes.
Similarly, there have been difficulties for teachers and schools – and of course for parents too, who have taken on the burden of homeschooling. We are lucky to have contributed in this area, creating things in partnership with DK for their Stay Home Hub, Puffin Schools, and our other publishing partners. It feels as though the industry has really stepped up to the mark when it comes to supporting children’s learning.
Education, though, feels irrevocably changed. A recent OECD Report suggests that the pandemic is far from over for schools, and that teaching and learning online is very much here to stay.
School leaders will need to prepare for a new way of delivering the curriculum, and will need to provide teacher CPD appropriately – in part to address the very stark disparities between disadvantaged children and their more affluent peers, from ill-health and poor-quality housing to children’s access to technology and therefore opportunities to learn at home.
There are calls for reform to the curriculum itself, some propelled by the Black Lives Matter movement, others by the need to blend across classroom, home and online spaces. This is a rebalancing opportunity, not just to respond to the immediate health crisis, but also to advance how the concept of school is delivered, ensuring that it can be accessed by all.
When I think about the comedian Rob Auton and his table legs, one year later, I still find it funny. I guess he would ordinarily be taking his show up to the Edinburgh Fringe this August. As with most live events, everything is shifting online. SHAPES is currently working with the Edinburgh International Book Festival to find ways of making it work. It is certainly a challenge to bring a physical event into the home environment (though we have tried, see this guide we created with artist Sam Winston for his exhibition, 'A Delicate Sight'). But this is the “new normal”, as they say, to use one of many phrases that we’ve embedded into our COVID lexicon.
“Lockdown”, similarly, is a word that no longer adequately describes what is happening to us. It’s a vague term, but I suppose we are living in vague times.
For me, it comes down to a tin of peaches that still sits up in the cupboard.
Jenny Baldwin is the founder and director of SHAPES, an award-winning education agency that supports organisations in making meaningful connections with new audiences of teachers, young people and their families. She was also a 2019 Bookseller Rising Star. You can find her at @shapes4schools.