The challenge of restarting education

By - Public Policy Projects

The challenge of restarting education

Anna Dickinson, Policy and Operations Executive for Public Policy Projects (PPP), provides an overview of a recent PPP webinar on the challenge of restarting education. Clearly, the pandemic has exposed major weaknesses in our education system that manifested long before Covid-19.

The rapid spread of Covid-19 has caused unpredictable and unprecedented disruption to the education of thousands of children. School closures across the UK, and indeed the world, have turned bedrooms, living rooms and kitchens into classrooms, with more than 20 per cent of children with no access to any study space at all. Almost a year on from the first lockdown and on the surface, little appears to have changed.

In this context, few would volunteer to fill the shoes of Gavin Williamson who, as Minister for Education, holds a position once famously turned down by Winston Churchill. With children, families, and teachers all struggling to adapt to online learning the risk of children falling behind increases, and the health and wellbeing of staff and students’ alike risks being jeopardised. There are big questions as to how the education sector can and whether it will recover.


Growing cracks in the system

In their opening remarks in this PPP virtual breakfast, both Neil Carmichael, former Chair of the Education Select Committee, and Desmond Deehan, CEO of Odyssey Trust for Education, provided a stark reminder as to the central role schools and education institutions play at the heart of our society. Depriving pupils and families of the structure that education provides has caused great disruption to community and family life.

This theme was central to Neil and Desmond’s presentations. Lockdown has served as a giant reminder of the role that schools and their staff play in providing structure and support for families. The true impact of the past 11 months will take time to digest, as the repercussions of children being confined to unhealthy and potentially damaging living situations, for example, remain unpredictable. Drawing attention to the implications for mental health, a call was made during the discussion for greater integration across the health sector, as well as between education and social services.

The social and emotional impact, however, is in no way limited to students. Little recognition has been awarded to the reality that staff and school leaders have, in essence, been managing two schools; one for the few children able to attend school in person, and one for those participating virtually. The rapid malleability of staff to adapt to online teaching deserves far more praise, with many in the education sector being given no more than a few days to transfer the curriculum into online resources.

Desmond’s remarks provided a clear reminder that the closure of schools has not had a negative impact upon everyone. In some cases, he said, “students have been able to spend more time with their families”. Furthermore, engagement between parents, children and the school has grown, with virtual parents evenings witnessing “significant increases in the number of parents who are attending”. During such an uncertain time, we must strive to take positive learnings wherever possible.


What is being learnt? Who for? And why?

The shift to online learning has prompted a rethink of curriculum assessment. It is no surprise that the different approaches implemented and adopted by the Government have caused both great confusion and disruption, to staff, student and families alike. The uncertainty surrounding assessments last summer has since witnessed the proposal for approaching assessments from a different perspective. If the system is so easily challenge and disrupted, was it always on the verge of breaking point?

The level of disruption endured by the education system has highlighted that the long-established forms of assessment cannot successfully adapt to online learning. Desmond highlighted that, “for far too long education has been focused on the passing of tests and examinations, as the measures of learning. ” With assessments being cancelled both in 2020 and 2021, it is clear they have failed to evolve and survive the pressures of the pandemic. Both Neil and Desmond called for a review into the use of exams and assessments their challenge to Government lays the foundations for an incredibly interesting debate surrounding the true purposes and long-term value of student assessment.

Desmond drew specific attention to the fact that “there is an immense amount of learning taking place which is not assessed and not tested. ” The pressure of preparing for assessments and exams, for example, enables students and young people to develop personally, learning how to manage anxiety and stress, amongst other skills and characteristics which will aid them in the future. How students, can emulate learning to manage under pressure, if elements such as assessments are removed, remains unknown.


Heightening of Inequalities

A key focus of both Neil and Desmond was the extent to which the pandemic has showcased the heightening of inequalities within UK society. Although disparities and inequalities were apparent long before Covid-19, the current strain on the economy is forcing many to redefine understandings of ‘disadvantaged’ as it extends far beyond the realms of simply the ‘free school meals’ debate. Even the promise of 300,000 extra laptops by Gavin Williamson, falls short of the true demands caused by remote learning.

Parental working hours, limited access to technology and the size of families, are some of the features that will play a part in the impact remote learning will have upon the individual pupil. The demand for ‘live-lessons’ by many parents as well as the Minister for Education, highlights, as explained by Desmond a “lack of understanding of the home circumstances of the majority of students”. Thus, reflecting a lack of empathy for societal disparities, as they fail to consider many of the limitations families often face. If the system is going to be fixed, we must first acknowledge of these cracks and find out how deep they run. The debate surrounding disparities and inequalities is endless, but Neil highlighted key areas the Government must address if and when new approaches to education are considered. Including, first, that the approach to the development and implementation of policy must be holistic, and second, the question of how we empower and equip localities to tackle inequalities” must be addressed.


Looking to the Future

Neil stressed that, whatever happens next, schools have got to be linked closer together. Arguing that vertical integration from early years till college, provides ore continuity to the pupil and teacher, through which the assessing of a pupil’s development would also be made easier. Perhaps it is time for education to become decentralised, with greater emphasis, resources and importance being placed upon community responses and awareness.

The threat of the national lockdown being extended prompts the need for more opportunities for digital learning amongst education staff, including trainee teachers, to optimise the potential of online learning. We should not assume that, just because new generations are more comfortable with digital technology, that teachers and students are more comfortable with virtual learning. The need to develop what Desmond labelled as “digital learning” is of paramount importance as when schools moved online in the Spring of 2020, only 33 per cent of students attended schools able to provide at least one online lesson. The need to bridge the digital divide does not simply impact students.

Besides advocating for teachers and pupils to be frequently tested for Covid-19, the arguments of both Neil and Desmond proposed that, if the education sector is going to recover and prosper from the impact of the pandemic, we must stress that school is more than just a service. Rather, it forms a key part of “societal fabric”.

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