[A version of this piece was published in Trust – The Journal for Executive and Governance Leaders, the Confederation of School Trusts’ journal. See here]

There has been a lot of talking, recently, about the role(s) schools have been playing throughout the Covid-19 pandemic, as well as the role they could – and perhaps should – play beyond the crisis.

The Confederation of School Trusts, earlier this year, published its School Trusts as New Civic Structures – A Framework Document, a key document outlining some of the steps Trusts can take to (re)think about their place with local/regional/national eco-systems within which our sector can engage more directly with other civic actors like Local Authorities, the NHS, housing bodies, cultural institutions, local businesses, and so on. The Framework also argues that Trusts should think strategically about the way they engage with families/communities.

These issues of civic engagement have become very visible – almost visceral – throughout the crisis. As Laura McInerney put it a few months ago, in a widely-read Guardian opinion piece, ‘[e]ducation was never the sole focus of schools, and it’s a shame it has taken a pandemic to prove it.’

There has also been a lot of talking about needing to ‘catch up’ – and rightly so. The gaps created by the pandemic are worrying and our attention needs to focus on addressing them as quickly as possible.

But, I wonder, what can these two aspects of the pandemic – ‘civic engagement’ and ‘catching up’ – help us reflect on as we move forward?

I’m of the opinion that they can help us challenge the way we think and the way we tackle many of the issues of social justice which have been at the heart of many of educational debates recently.

Catching up is needed, and I’m pleased that the Government has decided to invest £1bn to support schools in addressing the gaps created by the pandemic over the past few weeks. I’m also reminded that ‘catching our children up’, in many ways, is what most of our schools have been doing for years, if not decades, in order to try and narrow the attainment gap.

What I’m encouraged by is the way school and trust leaders have, increasingly, been commenting on the fact that catching up isn’t good enough. The society in which too many of our children are born is tarred with systemic barriers which, to be truly focused on closing the gap and bringing about true equity, need to be dismantled.

We all know that the attainment gap doesn’t start in the classroom. It finds its source beyond the school gates: inadequate housing, issues of unemployment, issues of poverty, issues compounded by a lack of investment, health inequalities, and many more. Recently, these have been made even clearer in the light of the systemic issues of racism which affect our society.

We are all aware that the systemic hurdles many of our children and families face are the reason why we live in such an unequal society.

Catching up is like sticking a plaster on a wound; it is reactionary. Our civic work, therefore, I’d argue, should focus on addressing the root causes; it should be preventative.

Not forgetting that the ‘sanctimonious purpose’ of schools is to teach, I’d argue that we could still shift some of our attention onto what goes on beyond our school walls; not as a distraction but, rather, as a strategic addition to the visionary work at the heart of what we do. If we’re serious about closing the gap, we need to tackle its source.

Recently, I compiled a series of case studies, based on the work some schools and trusts have been doing to address the systemic issues which shape what children bring to the classroom. In Schools in Communities: Taking Action and Developing Civic Life, we read about how St Antony’s Primary School, working alongside other civic institutions in Forest Gate, in Newham – one of the poorest areas in the country – have challenged private housing developers and the Local Authority to build affordable family homes. ‘After an epic two-year campaign’, recollects Emmanuel Gotora, the local Community Organiser who facilitated this work, ‘the developer finally conceded 25% of the site for affordable housing and the Council somehow found £18m to fund another 10%, seeing our campaign win 35% of the 842 homes for affordable rent at 50%-80% of the usual market rate!’. This win equates to over £100m.

We can also read about the work Big Education Trust (through Surrey Square Primary School) is doing alongside other civic partners to challenge the Home Office. Currently, as Family Worker Fiona Carrick-Davies explains, ‘British Citizenship for children of parents with irregular immigration status costs £1012 per child. These children have a right to register as British Citizens if they were born here and have spent 10 continuous years in the country, but the cost is prohibitive as most of these parents are in low-wage employment or are actually unable to work due to their own immigration status.’ Bear in mind that children who don’t have British Citizenship – even those who’ve spent over 10 years in the UK – are not eligible to receive Pupil Premium Funding.

Dr Martin Luther King Jr. reminds us that ‘[p]ower without love is reckless and abusive, and love without power is sentimental and anaemic. Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice, and justice at its best is power correcting everything that stands against love.’ Our sector is one that is full of love: love for our children, their families, and the world we are hoping to shape for them. What the crisis has made clear(er), though, is that there are huge gaps within our society, and it seems to me that if we’re serious about justice, we should fully embrace the civic role we can play as a sector. We should recognise how powerful we can be but never forgetting that we need a plan if we want our hopes to become a reality.