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The Impact of COVID 19 on Education and Thoughts for the Future


The Impact of COVID 19 on Education and Thoughts for the Future

The Impact of the COVID 19 pandemic on education is just coming to light. Research from the EEF and UNESCO have found the following:

  • Reduction in academic progress made compared to previous years.
  • Increasing attainment gap for disadvantaged students.
  • Increase in stress and mental heal problems for students, teachers, parents and leaders.
  • Spiralling financial pressure on schools.
  • Difficulty in measuring and judging progress made during remote learning.

As the dust begins to settle a little after the full force of the waves of the COVID-19 pandemic in the UK, glimmers of light begin to appear; schools are now fully open again (they were never closed!!) and all students are recommencing full face-to-face education.

Schools can look back on a turbulent period with pride; pride in their flexibility, pride in their innovation, pride in their resilience and pride in their responsiveness.

As can the schools, so can the students and their parents/ carers, who were thrown headlong into a maelstrom of home-schooling, juggling of roles, isolation, shielding, disruption – the list is long. 

However, looking back tells us nothing.

The present is the reality, and the echoes of the Pandemic will linger if we allow ourselves to keep hearing them.

Rightly, there is much concern and consternation as to the true cost of the disruption on the education and development of those younger members of our society who have had their schooling interrupted.

In spite of this, I call to the front of our thinking the fact that there are many, not just of school age, who have had some form of schooling, training or professional development kiboshed in some way.

The pandemic has stalled the development of us all in one way and enabled our development in another.

Research on Impact of COVID 19 on Education

Research from the EEF and UNESCO has concluded that the COVID pandemic has either caused or exacerbated the following:

  • Less academic progress has been made than in previous years.
  • The attainment gap for disadvantaged students has widened.
  • Increase in instances of stress, anxiety and mental heal problems for all stakeholders.
  • Increased financial pressure on schools.
  • Difficulty in measuring and judging progress made during remote learning.

According to the EEF, ‘Research shows a consistent pattern:

  • Pupils have made less academic progress compared with previous year groups
  • There is a large attainment gap for disadvantaged pupils, which seems to have grown’

There is rightly much concern around how large an impact in the long-term the partial closures of schools will have on the education and prospects for current students.

Significant focus is being paid to the lasting impact on those who are classed as ‘Disadvantaged’, where already existing issues have been exacerbated.

If much learning is designed to be done at home and using a computer, many stars need to align to facilitate the effectiveness of this.

As a parent myself, I know that creating a high-quality learning environment that supports and fosters progress in one’s own home is far from easy!

And let’s not even get started on the issues around access to appropriate technology…

UNESCO’s Thoughts on Post COVID Education

Research by UNESCO on the impact of school closures found that disruptions in education would exacerbate pre-existing issues, especially for students from vulnerable or marginalised families:

  • The attainment gap of disadvantaged students has widened.
  • An increase in mental health problems for all stakeholders.
  • Financial pressure on schools.
  • Reduction in progress compared with previous years

During the full-teeth of the Pandemic, UNSECO published their findings on the impact of school closures.

They told us that ‘school closures carry high social and economic costs for people across communities’ and that ‘their impact, however, is particularly severe for the most vulnerable and marginalized boys and girls and their families‘.

The concern, rightly, was that the disruptions would ‘exacerbate already existing disparities within the education system’ but that the reach was wider than just schooling.

They identified the following issues, all of which are evident as we look around our respective societies:

  • Interrupted learning
  • Poor nutrition
  • Confusion and stress for teachers
  • Parents unprepared for distance and homeschooling
  • Challenges creating, maintaining, and improving distance learning
  • Gaps in childcare
  • High economic costs
  • The unintended strain on healthcare systems
  • Increased pressure on schools and school systems that remain open
  • A rise in dropout rates
  • Increased exposure to violence and exploitation
  • Social isolation
  • Challenges measuring and validating learning

Now, many of those may appear out of the purview of the standard educator and education setting but, in UNESCO’s own words:

Schools are hubs of social activity and human interaction. When schools close, many children and youth miss out on social contact that is essential to learning and development’.

And, let’s be honest, it’s not just the students that struggle – teachers and parents do too.

A note from the Institute for Fiscal Studies in February 2021 indicated the scale of the problem:

The total loss in face-to-face schooling time will amount to around half a normal school year for children right across the UK. That’s before accounting for lower-than-normal attendance rates in the 2020 autumn term, especially in disadvantaged areas“.

That’s a lot of time out of the system as it exists, and the IFS called for policy-makers to ‘think big‘, especially as ‘the negative effects are over 50% larger for disadvantaged children’.

How Will Examination/Qualification Processes Change Post COVD.

Will the new process of Teacher Awarded Grades be more or less effective than the dreaded and much-maligned ‘algorithm’ of 2020?

Will robust internal systems of regulation and monitoring ensure that the dreaded twin spectres of Pygmalion and Golem are kept from the door?

The Sutton Trust made the following recommendation:

“Assessment for A-Levels and GCSEs and other qualifications in 2021 must be as robust, respected and equitable as possible in the circumstances, with a focus on facilitating progression.

While no perfect solution is possible in a context of disruption that has been significant, and unequally experienced, it is crucial that this year’s assessment system should minimise bias or unfairness.

It should also be as robust as possible so as to give this years’ cohorts genuine ‘currency’ as they move to the next level. Externally set tests and robust external moderation of centre assessed grades is vital.”

However, as we know, not all this has been enabled. 

Has the COVID 19 Pandemic made the Attainment Gap Wider?

Research conducted by the Sutton Trust in January 2021 found the following:

Attendance was up – during the second set of partial school closures far more students were attending through Key Worker status.

However, attendance and engagement are not the same things, and maintaining curriculum momentum when there was a need for teachers to blend approaches was tricky, to say the least.

I speak from experience!

Over half (55%) of teachers at the least affluent state schools reported a lower than normal standard of work returned by students during the 2021 Lockdown, compared to 41% at the most affluent state schools and 30% at private schools.

Most alarmingly, their research uncovered that ‘Most teachers (84%) thought the COVID-19 lockdown and associated disruption would increase the attainment gap, with a third (33%) saying it would increase substantially’, which was up from 28% in November.

As mentioned above, the gap widens when the tools that have the capacity to close it are not freely available to all.

How has COVID 19 Affected Health and Well-Being in Education?

Significant absence from proper schooling impacts not only on academic outcomes but also physical and mental health and wellbeing; not just students that are affected but teachers and leaders too as they grapple with constantly shifting sands and variations to working styles and patterns.

The Sutton Trust found recently that there has been a significant rise in University students admitting to poor mental health, for example.

This spreads wider and further through the rest of the student (and staff) population.

As with all things, when there is no one there to help, things get worse; existing issues are intensified and new ones are often unheeded.

There is a lot of looking out for each other that we need to do, not just focussing on Academic performance in comparison to previous cohorts, but in terms of our own health and wellbeing as we emerge from such a devastating time.

The Reality and the Enforced Changes

Short-term ambiguity of relief combined with anxiety will soon fade, and be replaced with a real picture.

Those who have been at the business end of their school careers in the last two years are under-cooked, under-assessed and under-prepared.

They have lacked access to Careers Guidance, SMSC, PSHE, social contact, Work Experience – nothing that would normally be expected has been able to take place, and this has to be factored in.

Thankfully (?!) the Pandemic affected everyone.

Those who would normally deliver and oversee the missing content are themselves behind, and the focus must surely now be on ensuring personal safety and wellbeing, instead of forcing catch-up programmes and additional pressures on those who have developed in different ways.

Yes, the classes of 2020 and 2021 haven’t perhaps had the chance to develop the same academic depth and rigour that might be expected of more ‘traditional’ curriculum years, but they have developed in other ways.

Resilience, grit, adaptiveness; the Pandemic can be seen as a revolutionary trigger for an evolutionary change.

Rossman et al (1988) cited three types of change – Evolutionary, Additive or Transformative; only the latter is explicit and deliberate.

We are, I feel, in the process of the latter after having our hands forced by a combination of the former – we have learnt much as educators in recent months, and students have learnt much about themselves.

Perhaps what we are doing is what Fullan calls ‘reculturing’ – ‘changing the way we do things round here’.

It seems that is all we have done for the past year – change.

Adapt. Respond. Innovate. Accept. 

Bye, Bye Snow Day!

For one thing, I don’t see much hope for the future of the good old ‘Snow Day’!

Schools are now set up to deliver high-quality instruction via remote platforms, so it may be that, where feasible and with enough notice, a simple switch could be made to accommodate any enforced school closures.

The key is the gap; it is already wide, and it will no doubt widen more evidently as the cost of COVID is counted across its various parameters. 

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Thoughts on the COVID 19 Catch-Up Plan.

The IFS report predicts some startling figures:

‘The £250m in the schools component of the National Tutoring Programme can buy about 6 hours of tutoring time for each of 1.4 million disadvantaged students’ but also qualifies this with an acknowledgement that this will not be enough.

‘Lost weeks of learning time is likely to coincide with lost weeks of educational progress’, and with at least 50% of an Academic year (in real and ‘quality’ terms) lost, the figures don’t match.

But, should this backfill of lost hours be our prime concern?

The existing and seminal research into gaps and advantage points to a long-term problem.

The impact of the Pandemic is harder on those in already disadvantaged situations, so the Matthew Effect continues and the inequalities widen – the rich get rich, and the poor get poorer. 

Many students, for example, will have missed out on vital Careers advice:

  • What are their next steps after they get their Teacher-Awarded GCSEs?
  • What options do they have at Post-16?
  • What is best for them? 

For those in lower years, just how successful have transition programmes been?

Are the current Year 7s less emotionally resilient and academically able than their predecessors?

Ultimately it doesn’t matter – comparison is the thief of joy.

What does matter is how we react to the situation and what we set as our goals and desired successes; then we can plan carefully. 

COVID Catch Up Summer Schools; Yay or Nay.

Debate continues to rage about the funding for the proposed Catch-Up plans:

  • Is £6000 per Primary and £22000 per Secondary enough?
  • What is the purpose of these catch-up programmes?
  • What are they meant to achieve?

A lot of the onus is on individual schools here and a lot of schools may be considering different approaches, focussing more on social and emotional health and wellbeing as opposed to plugging identified Academic gaps.

Whatever the rationale for individual MATs or settings, these provide an opportunity for those teachers new to the profession to perhaps gather some additional experience (and money!) in school settings and begin to offset some of the enforced classroom absences during their training and induction.

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DfE Behaviour Hubs.

Part of the Catch-Up (or is it? Timing of the roll-out is interesting!) is also the creation of the new DfE Behaviour Hubs.

Designed to ‘enable schools and multi-academy trusts (MATs) with exemplary behaviour cultures and practices to work with partner schools that want and need to improve behaviour in their school’.

Is now the time?

Yes, the first indication of this programme was in February 2020, prior to Lockdown 1, but is this really where our focus needs to be?

The programme also is open only to those schools who are rated ‘Requires Improvement’, meaning the onus is on the fact that poor behaviour is a root cause of a poor school; not always the case in my view.

However, opportunities for collaboration and partnership are always welcomed, and these hubs will hopefully allow new bonds and relationships to be formed, and for the sharing of good practice and innovation.

Reasons for optimism?

However, there is cause for cautious optimism; a return to schools and classrooms means a return to genuine dialogue, eye-contact and connection; a chance to tell stories, share anecdotes, laugh and cry.

A chance for a teacher to construct an elaborate model, a powerful analogy or a strong concrete example ‘live’, adapting as they go.

In his marvellous Hidden Lives of Learners, Graham Nutthall describes how so much of teaching is reaction, response and adaptation; this is far easier in a synchronous environment. 

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The important aspect going forward for all in education, from school leaders to classroom practitioners, is pragmatic assessment of the situation and sensible, impactful strategies to solve the problems identified.

This needs to happen without fear of judgement or harmful scrutiny.

Schools can plan carefully for ‘catch-up’, but for me, a prime focus should be on the maximising of existing opportunities.

All schools have a Homework policy and an extracurricular agenda – these should be used effectively to start to plug some of the identified ‘gaps’.

Now, I agree that homework is contentious and also subject to the same inequalities as home-schooling – access to technology, supportive environment et al – but carefully structured and scaffolded tasks that receive quick and formative feedback can be far better for students than a range of unsupervised tasks of expectations to attend school at ‘odd’ hours. 

The OECD have recently published their suggestions to ensure equitable recovery; such a key focus. They suggest the following:

  • Provide targeted support to meet students’ learning and social and emotional needs
  • Co-design a robust digital learning infrastructure with teachers and stakeholders
  • Empower teachers to exercise their professionalism and benefit from professional learning opportunities
  • Encourage a collaborative culture of innovation
  • Learn from national and international evidence.

We need to think forward; we need to learn from what we have experienced.

For me, the true cost of the Pandemic is measured not in school closures and missed examinations but lives and livelihoods in the here and now.

We can plan for the future built on correct analysis of the present, and continue to work in education to provide those who have been impacted with opportunities to have those experiences that they have missed.

Perhaps, finally, we might at least finally get full rid of the awful concept of Age-Related Expectations, algorithms and nomenclatures and start treating students as individuals again, each with their own sets of skills and experiences.

Phoenixes, ashes and all that.

If we continue to plan for the immediate future based only on the immediate past then we jerk our knees too quickly.

No one will ever be able to suggest the Pandemic didn’t take place (and is still having a massive impact), so perhaps we take our eyes off the numbers and grades on the pages and focus instead on the people behind the statistics.

As I stated earlier, we are all continually developing as people, we should always be learning; we have all just learnt one very big lesson that will help us as we move forward.

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The Impact of COVID 19 on Education FAQs:

What happened to schools during Lockdown?

During National lockdowns schools have remained open for certain identified students – those with special learning needs and those who are vulnerable – but the majority of students aged 5 – 18 have had their schooling disrupted.

How has Lockdown affected education?

This article will summarise some of the key areas but it is clear a gap that already existed has been widened, caused by access to materials and support.

Will schools be different after COVID?

Possibly; certainly there will be a change in attitudes and approaches as we recover from the effects of the pandemic. Schools have enabled more access to remote learning and online opportunities, which will certainly be of use in the future!

Henry Sauntson
Henry Sauntson is an experienced teacher, Senior Leader and SLE working in Peterborough. As well as teaching he oversees trainee development, both at his school and for the local SCITT. He enjoys hosting and presenting evidence-informed professional learning opportunities for colleagues and believes strongly in collaboration and a collegiate approach to improving teacher effectiveness. He also acts as a facilitator for the delivery of NPQs and contributes pieces to Impact (Chartered College) and TES, among others.

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