Even if Covid goes away, it’s unlikely things will ever be the same again. That’s not necessarily a bad thing.

Let’s take education for example. Teachers generally have done a great job, keeping the plates spinning under the most challenging circumstances. Nevertheless, surely our post-Covid aspirations must go beyond restoring the status quo.

For example, lockdowns required rapid development of online learning that was initially unfamiliar to many teachers and youngsters. How best can we make use of that and other new-found expertise to address priorities such as closing the attainment gap? Similarly, locked-down parents became de facto teachers. How can that out-of-school learning be carried forward?

One London headteacher believes Covid has paved the way for greater parental involvement. Katherine Birbalsingh, headteacher of Michaela Community School (MCS), is not your run of the mill headteacher, having a rare talent for self-publicity. At the 2010 Conservative Party conference she criticised Britain’s “broken” education system, claiming schools were underperforming through lack of discipline and standards.While her speech went down a storm with the party faithful, it led to her dismissal as deputy head of an academy in Camberwell.

Undaunted, she co-founded MCS in 2014. Since then, inspectors have described the school has outstanding in all areas. Examination performance is certainly remarkable, particularly as MCS admits above average percentages of pupils from a range of ethnic and social backgrounds.

In 2021, Ms Birbalsingh’s flair for publicity saw her appointed as Westminster’s Social Mobility Commissioner. She appears comfortable with the sobriquet “England’s strictest headteacher”, although some critics describe her regime as oppressive. She is the go-to person for media interviews, particularly when attacking “leftist” influence in education and “woke culture”.

Ms Birbalsingh has told parents recently, “There’s never been a better time to teach children at home”. She warns that Covid has led to children possibly being taught “by a deputy head in a gym with 120 students” and “proper teaching isn’t taking place”, the very scenario highlighted in a recent BBC news report.

She probably underestimates the challenge that presents for many parents. How many are equipped to teach older children in areas such as mathematics, physics or modern foreign languages? I often covered for absent colleagues in subjects other than my own. I may have been doing more harm than good, when for example, demonstrating a form of calculation last seen in the 1960s. How easy is it for parents for whom English is not their first language? How receptive are children when a parent takes on a teaching role? To be fair, parental comments on online forums such as Mumsnet, are overwhelmingly supportive of Ms Birbalsingh.

She certainly tells it as she sees it. Parents are warned they shouldn’t take it for granted their children are being taught well. “You might get lucky. Great! But don’t assume it and there is only so much a school can do.” In her eyes, even the best schools have weak links. Her quest for high standards amongst staff led her to attack “This job for life ethos”, “destroying the motivation of young, talented and enthusiastic teachers”. She believes “unreformed union power” has led to “failing teachers remaining in post” and the protection of “shockingly poor senior teams”.

There’s little doubt she courts controversy but nevertheless it’s an uncomfortable message. To improve, schools must have explicitly high expectations and standards for both pupils and teachers. The road to improvement is not through central initiatives driven by university-based “experts”, lacking credibility at the chalk face. Improvement happens at classroom level.

For that to happen teachers need to be empowered and supported to take responsibility for the what and how of what’s taught, tailoring it to the needs of their own pupils and communities. It’s a big ask, requiring uniformly high-quality teaching in every classroom in the land. It’s where the education inspectorate should spend most of its time.

As our schools emerge from Covid, youngsters have the right to expect consistently high-quality experiences in every classroom. Let’s trust the professionalism of our teachers to deliver.

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