Schooling the Pandemic

The educational impacts of the pandemic

Much of the debate about the educational impact of COVID-19 has rightly focused on the differential impact of the virus, especially on those children and young people from black and minority ethnic communities, on those who are disadvantaged and on those who are otherwise deemed ‘vulnerable’.

A second set of discussions has concentrated on the pedagogies of the pandemic – for instance, the loss of collaborative work in socially spaced classrooms, the re-emergence of teacher assessment in light of the cancellation of written examination papers for a second year, and the emergence of blended and online learning. As the potential of some of these innovations is becoming clear, attention is turning to how these and other strategies might be embraced in the longer term.

A third theme has been around the comparative concerns about curriculum ‘catch-up’ and psychological ‘recovery’. To reflect on the social impact of the pandemic on child development is not to diminish the issue of lost learning, although it often feels that this is the way that the debate is being framed.

A fourth, and more nuanced area is an assessment of the outliers of lockdown: those young people who have thrived during lockdown, those who have enjoyed, and benefitted from, the autonomy of learning beyond the school gates, and those who find themselves reflecting on the efficiency of schooling, not because they are behind in their learning but because they are ahead.

And this has been amongst the factors spurring a fifth debate around the comparative efficacy of school and home-based learning; whatever the outcome of this discourse, it is likely that the future is blended, and that home-schooling is likely to be a part of the new mainstream, even if it does not quite constitute the new normal. And this, in turn, takes us back to issues of inequality, cultural capital and digital access; or to locate this in what might be considered a Fabian lexicon, the challenge of how one delivers a comprehensive education for all in a blended world, when the home circumstances of learners differ so widely, a challenge that for me has never been adequately addressed by those, often on the left, who, following Illich, want to de-school society.

The multiple purposes of schooling

Alongside these themes, lockdown has caused us to reflect on the multiple purposes of schooling – not just its educational role but its vital function in the social development of young people and its centrality in supporting the participation of parents in employment; should not schools gain credit for their roles in these respects, as well as the educational performance of their students? Just as employment has impacts far wider than those deemed ‘economic’ – notably in respect of wellbeing, the opportunity for sociability and self-esteem – schooling has many functions beyond the narrowly educational, not that you’d know it in our culture of tests, targets and tables. This isn’t to play down the core educative purpose of schooling – it would be disingenuous for an educationalist to do so – but it is to recognise the full value of schooling and the wider contribution of all who work in education not just to learning but to society.

These are among the themes that I explore in my new book, Lessons From Lockdown: the educational legacy of COVID-19 which has recently been published by Routledge. In it, I track the early experience of lockdown through to the start of the current academic year. In its upcoming sequel: Bubble Schools: the long road from lockdown, due towards the close of this year, I seek to capture and curate the experience of the pandemic through to August 2021. Both books do so through the voices of those at the thick end of the action – pupils, parents and educational professionals – with both based on a mix of extended conversations, face-to-face interviews and focus group discussions.

The making of educational policy

In closing, though, I want to pose a different set of questions, a set that should be of concern to all with an interest in education, and to all Fabians, a set of questions that has been an obsession of mine since qualifying as a teacher and taking my first tentative steps into the classroom and staffroom in September 1987: how we develop and deliver educational policy.

Even when one acknowledges that these are unprecedented times, and this an unprecedented pandemic, the management of the government’s policy response to it, in educational terms, has been shambolic; to give but a few examples: the chaotic on-off ‘re-opening’ of schools in June 2020, the ongoing issues around support for children entitled to free school meals, including the recent discussion about the paltry portions in at least some of the ill-named ‘hampers’ distributed to our most disadvantaged families, the 2020 grading crisis and the grudging U-turn over the primacy of the Centre Assessed Grading process, the determination to persist with written papers and standard examinations against a backdrop of local lockdowns, tiers and ‘bubbles’ during the 2020 Autumn Term, ahead of the U-turn on this in January 2021, the evident absence of a ‘Plan B’ to accommodate this possibility, as the Secretary of State had claimed to be in place throughout the Autumn, with conversations with Ofqual on the strategy to be adopted only being initiated almost two weeks after the announcement that written papers would not take place, the failure to address the digital exclusion of those from the poorest homes during the relative ‘downtime’ during lockdowns one and two, the Department for Education threat to ‘send in the lawyers’ against secondary schools, trusts and local authorities that had proposed switching to blended learning in the final week before the Christmas break, before instructing all schools to close and switch to blended learning a day into the Spring Term, and finally, the announcement of this decision, barely 36 hours after the PM had spoken of the safety of schools on The Andrew Marr Show, asserting that schools would not close.

Moreover, and more galling, was the absence from the policy table of key stakeholders at key points in the process, the paucity of the debate around issues such as assessment and curriculum ‘catch-up’, and the constant restatement of essentially ideologically but unresearched positions, for instance on the supremacy of unseen papers as a mode of examination assessment and the subjectivity of teacher assessment, dutifully and disappointedly repeated by leaders at Ofsted and Ofqual, and any Minister available to occupy a TV or radio interview slot or pen a newspaper column. To allow these proclamations to go unchallenged is to accept that schooling after the crisis will be exactly as it was beforehand; that would be to cast aside an important and potentially positive educational legacy of this terrible period: that system-shocks such as that provided by the pandemic can drive creativity and innovation. We must, as progressives, be brave enough to allow them to.

Big change, though, needs levels of trust and partnership that recent ministerial and departmental practice has done nothing to enhance. In fact, it is reasonable to surmise that relations between the profession and the Department for Education and its agencies are at an all-time low; the damage resulting from the bungling, low trust culture of recent months is likely to take years to repair, and will need to be a priority for the next Secretary of State for Education. But in the longer run we need a wider re-appraisal of how policymaking and policy implementation takes place. The forced implementation of inoperable strategies dreamed up by a Department, a set of agencies and a Ministerial ‘SPAD-ocracy’ far too low on (if not completely devoid of) any experience of how schools operate on a day-to-day basis, never mind in mid-lockdown, is no way to effect change of any form, or at any time.

Instead, we need an approach to educational policymaking that is inclusive and informed – inclusive in that policymaking is generated by a culture that is high trust, collaborative and engaging of stakeholders on the ground; informed in that it is rooted in the experience of pupils, parents and educational professionals over the past ten months, the work of the educational research community, and a newly reconstituted expert body focused on pedagogy, the curriculum and its assessment, one that brings together the biggest brains in, and the finest exponents of, curricular practice to fill the void that has existed since Michael Gove first expressed his long-held disdain for experts by abolishing the Qualifications and Curriculum Development Agency almost a decade ago – one of his first acts as Education Secretary.

Right now, we seem some distance from this inclusive, informed, collaborative, high trust Nirvana, but the message is that, as Fabians, we need to focus as much in the methodology of our policymaking as its content. In practical terms, this means having the confidence to share and mould our proposals with researchers, professionals and service users, resisting the urge to impose our preferred solutions (however longstanding our commitment to these) when they caution that we might need to go about our business differently. We might not achieve all of policy objectives, but those that we do put in place will sustain for the long term with the buy-in of those on who they impact most: that’s not just better policymaking, it’s good news for an educational community driven to distraction by reforms that it knows will not work, and it’s better for our politics too.

Catch-up, recovery and the future of schooling

Another day, another u-turn

On the evening of 30 December, it was confirmed that secondary school pupils (other than those in the final year of examined courses), the children of key workers and those deemed vulnerable, would not return to their studies until January 18, at the earliest. Perhaps more surprisingly, primary school children in what might be defined as ‘Tier 4 Plus’ areas would also need to stay at home. This from a government led by a Prime Minister who had been unequivocal in the build up to the preceding Autumn term: in any further lockdown, “schools will be the last to close and the first to open”. But that was before the Prime Minister’s late evening announcement on Monday 5 January that all schools in England would close until after the February half term break, at the earliest.

The track to the postponement of the post-Christmas reopening of schools had followed a pattern established across the preceding nine months or so. First a denial that it would be necessary (allied to dire warnings of the consequences of doing so), then a gradual slippage of position – usually preceded by the actions of governments in Belfast, Cardiff and Edinburgh – followed by a belated, inevitable about-turn, driven certainly on this occasion by the science, much less so by any kind of understanding of human motivation, or the kind of time lines that schools and families need to prepare for such changes.

While we can all appreciate the challenge of governing in the circumstances of a pandemic, the charge list against the government is long: the calamitous and ultimately partial ‘would they-wouldn’t they?’ school re-openings back in June; the examination marking fiasco in August when teacher assessment was first derided and then called forth as the saviour of the day, as it has been again for 2021; the sudden switch from ‘eat out to help out’ to ‘drink up and get out’; the castigation of those suggesting the need for ‘circuit-breakers’ before belatedly putting these in place. And of course, weeks later and weeks late, the promise of Christmas, rescinded only after the nation’s freezers and larders had been filled. Finally, after individual schools, multi-academy trusts and local authorities had been threatened with legal action for proposing a switch to blended learning in the week running up to Christmas, the concession that schooling would again become a blended experience for most pupils, possibly for the remainder of the academic year.

This belated decision to close schools for the majority of children and young people again throws into sharp relief the range of educational conundrums that have always been endemic to our schooling system, and the multiple roles that it performs, but which the pandemic has stripped bear. These conundrums are the core concerns of my new book, Lessons From Lockdown: the educational legacy of Covid-19, which takes its title from my RSA long read posted in early lockdown and is based on a series of focus group, face-to-face and telephone conversations with over one hundred pupils, parents and professionals.

The downside of targets, tests and tables

Educational policy priorities of the past 25 years have given scarce attention to the diversity of the roles our schools perform. Instead, they point to a narrow (and narrowly educational) purpose articulated through a performance culture based on of tests, targets and tables. The origins of such a culture lie in the pervasive and persistent educational underachievement of disadvantaged groups that stretches back to the beginnings of our post-war schooling system and in the relatively late realisation that an educated society is an effective and efficient one.

This target-focused culture, while it has seen significant growth in both achievement and participation over the past three decades, nonetheless stands accused of a range of increasingly corrosive flaws. These include championing academic learning over all other forms, accepting that that the exclusion of some is near inevitable and persistently failing to address this, and marginalising the social function of schooling and the importance of developing qualities such as enterprise, resilience and self-confidence. Further, the focus on a set of narrowly academic targets is blamed for actively contributing to the failure to address the needs of those children facing the greatest learning and socio-economic challenges, while accentuating the pressure on young people to succeed to the point that, according to critics, it may be damaging to the mental health of all.

Covid-19 has shone a spotlight on these and other persistent shortcomings; while it did not create what some now see as a mental health crisis amongst the young or the educational underachievement of our poorest communities, it has exposed these tensions and inequalities as never before (rendering them politically undeniable in the process) and is likely to have accentuated these issues. The sharp end of poverty has a newly visible edge.

Beyond learning: the multiple purposes of schooling

The pandemic has done more, than simply shine a light on the flawed strategies employed to address these inequities, exposing our system’s longest standing challenges and the weaknesses of the ‘solutions’ subsequently applied. It has also reminded us of the multiple functions of schooling: not just to ‘educate’ (howsoever defined) but also to nurture and to develop children as social beings; not just to enable the participation of parents in the workforce but also to provide hubs through which communities are fostered, whether through periodic school events, the daily discussions around the school gate or the chilliness of Saturday morning football.

Whatever the challenges of curriculum ‘catch-up’ (and this is not to deny the importance of this), those pertaining to the psychological recovery of young people and their communities are likely to be far more complex and varied, intensely personal and sometimes barely visible in their nature. Gaps in a defined and highly structured, curriculum in say maths, or physics, or geography can be identified and – albeit through smart, expensive and labour-intensive interventions – addressed. The ‘gap’ left by what may be on the cusp of becoming 12 months of missed play dates for primary school children, or being unable to associate freely with teenage friends, as had been the experience of many in the secondary phase, are much less tangible but, in terms of the mental and social wellbeing of young people, are at least as important. Beyond the pandemic, addressing these much less visible but much more pernicious gaps is a key challenge for educators around the world. One thing is for sure: a bit of extra tutoring or a clutch of booster classes will not fix this.

Networks for change

Here, the RSA, the various education networks that it has spawned, and other clusters of progressive educators have much to build on. England’s new inspection framework, launched in September 2019, gave a new credence to the wellbeing of both children and school staff with Ofsted’s Chief Inspector, Amanda Spielman, calling for a shift away from “teaching to the test” and a reassertion of the “purpose of education”. These themes have been central to the RSA’s educational work over the past decade as articulated in a plethora of reports (recent examples include Schools without Walls and Arts-Rich Schools) and have also featured strongly in the discussions and work of teachers, heads, system leaders and those representing them. The tonal change at the school inspectorate, and its evidently growing concern for both student and staff wellbeing, suggests that this coalition of voices was beginning to make itself heard in high places before the emergence of the virus. But long-entrenched systems do not move lightly on their feet; this requires the kind of system-shock that the pandemic is now delivering.

For this reason, towards the close of the focus group and interview-based discussions that have provided the data for both Lessons From Lockdown: the educational legacy of COVID-19 and its sequel, due to be published later in the year, we posed one key question to participants: what can’t you wait to get back to, and what can’t you wait to leave behind? This question ought to be the focus of every system and school leader and all concerned with the nature of learning in the post-pandemic world in the months and years ahead, but change is never easy. As we explore it, we might want to consider a range of related challenges:

1. How do we track, capture and learn from the experiences of those who constitute the Covid-19 generation? In the book we propose a major longitudinal study focusing on key year groups.

2. How do we begin to build a long-term recovery curriculum for each of the Covid-19 year groups 3. that support their learning for as long as they remain in formal education? We suggest the creation of a new qualifications and curriculum body to bring together the best curriculum thinkers and to begin working now.

3. How do we better acknowledge the multiple, other functions of schooling that we have merely hinted at here? In the Google era and with the passing of the age of deference, mere instruction has slipped way down the list.

4. How do we re-introduce the ‘social’ dimension of schooling, such that we can again utilise pedagogies that are collaborative at their core?

5. How do we build on the new technological literacies forced on many of us by the pandemic, and resist the urge to just ‘put the tablets back in the cupboard’?

6. How do we build on the new relationships between the home and the school that the pandemic has, in places, helped us to build and how might these enable us to build new strategies to enhance inclusion and widen participation.

Change in highly structured settings

As I have argued for over two decades, highly structured systems (or ‘total institutions’ as the Canadian sociologist Erving Goffman termed them over 50 years ago) tend to reproduce themselves over time and are remarkably resilient of change.

The military, hospitals, prisons, our public service bureaucracies and, of course, schools, are such institutions. Their tendency is to maximise the feeling of change while minimising its impact. How else might we explain why generations of educational reform have delivered a curriculum that still mirrors that offered in the post-war schools of three-quarters of a century ago? Why else, I asked in a recent blog produced for NACE (the National Association for Able Children in Education), might we have overseen the building of a swathe of new schools at the turn of this century constructed on the exact template of their predecessors constructed in the 1950s, ‘60s and ‘70s? Not so much ‘Building Schools for the Future’, as the programme was branded, as for the past. To reiterate, highly structured organisations such as schools (and there is no doubting the need for such organisations) are remarkably resilient to change, in spite of appearing to be at its epicentre.

A game-changer?

The pandemic is a potential game-changer in this regard and the key questions are straightforward, even if the answers are far from simple; where do we want (and need) our education systems to go from here and how are we going to get there? Lockdown and all that has flowed from it has revealed the inequalities of outcome endemic in our pre-pandemic approach to schooling once and for all. For progressives, the challenge is to address how we can rebuild our schools, our pedagogies and practises, in a way that no longer tolerates such inequities.

Move quickly, and we might just have Ofsted on board. Miss the chance, ignore the lessons from lockdown, and the pressure to ‘get back to normal’ will surely grow; that would be a terrible legacy from this most terrible of illnesses.