by Hannah Fowler
One-way corridors, handwashing stations and ‘bubbles’ will all be the new normal as schools, colleges and universities look to reopen after five months of closures. But the pandemic has also transformed the way students learn and how educators teach – moving away from physical classrooms to the remote world of digital learning and video calls. Are these changes here to stay?
Educate interviews three different providers to find out how they are preparing for a new academic year in the shadow of Covid-19.
In March, UK schools and universities closed their gates to all but the children of essential workers and those deemed the most vulnerable. This presented a huge challenge for students, parents and educators, who had to navigate a new world of home learning. The UK’s internet use surged to record levels in June (Ofcom, 2020), highlighting the shift to online learning, video-calling and apps.
With an increased focus on the role of technology, it has been difficult for some education providers to make the transition online without compromising the quality and integrity of teaching and learning. According to the National Union of Students (NUS), about 20 per cent of university students have been unable to access any of their learning during the Covid-19 lockdown.
“We have a long history in technology enhanced learning and had key systems, such as a virtual learning environment, in place before the pandemic,” said Sarah Wright, Senior Lecturer in Primary Education and Senior Solstice Lead at the Faculty of Education at Edge Hill University (EHU). “This certainly put us in a strong position to be able to react rapidly when things began to change.”
The new term will start in October for returning students at Edge Hill and the University is intending to deliver face-to-face teaching in small groups alongside making full use of digital tools to provide an inperson learning experience.
“I genuinely feel that our coming academic year will be a great mix of the things we know and love about our courses,” said Sarah. “That on campus feeling and being able to make the most of the facilities and an enhanced digital provision – more opportunities to connect and meet online [and] enriched digital resources. Our hybrid approach will help our students make the most of the both present in person and digital experiences.”
“We’re very much about community at EHU so it was about finding ways to keep those connections and that personal approach to the university experience but in a digital way. That has ranged from digital coffee clubs and large lectures using a range of technologies right through to the option to pick up a phone for a video chat with the people you’d usually bump into in the corridor,” added Sarah.
Progress Schools is a national organisation with independent secondary schools based across England. Throughout the pandemic, it has remained open to provide the most vulnerable students with access to “education, support, guidance and safety at a time when the anxiety of the country has been extremely high,” said James Madine, CEO of Progress Schools.
“Our dedicated team of teachers and attendance officers have been making daily welfare calls and checks to students not in attendance, visiting them at their homes to offer support and guidance and ensuring that any safeguarding concerns are addressed and/or escalated where needed,” added James.
The effects of social distancing, the lockdown, loss of loved ones, and stress-inducing media reports has taken its toll on everyone’s mental health and wellbeing during the pandemic. For some children, school is their only safe haven, a place where they can thrive, learn and develop – something which was taken away from many during the height of the crisis. Over two thirds of young people said that their mental health has gotten worse during the period of lockdown restrictions (Mind, 2020).
One of Progress Schools’ students, known as CM for confidentiality, has struggled during the last few months. The care home where he lives went into full lockdown and Progress School staff were keen to do everything they could to support him. The staff sent out work which involved projects such as World War II, alongside English and maths. Once completed, CM returned his work to the team and responded well to this structure and continued support while at home. And once the lockdown eased, CM returned to school and worked with a dedicated staff member, which provided stability and a constant support network.
This targeted support approach has given CM, and others like him, the confidence and motivation to focus on their futures amid all the uncertainty.
Andreas Schleicher from the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) believes that Covid-19 has proved the need for students to develop better social and emotional skills so they can “navigate ambiguity” and take responsibility in times of crisis. James echoes these thoughts, with the organisation placing a strong focus on mental health and wellbeing in September.
“After six months of anxiety, lack of guidance, support or boundaries at home, the mental health and wellbeing of many students will be far greater than any previous start to an academic year,” said James.
It is expected that this will provide a catalogue of challenges that we have worked with staff on over the course of the last half term to best prepare for. Staff will also be returning to school a full two weeks before the start of the term to ensure that they are fully ready to embrace the challenge and ensure that all schools are fully Covid compliant.”
Research shows that between April and May, primary and secondary school students were spending about 5 hours a day on average on home learning (IFS, 2020). But the crisis has also highlighted existing inequalities in our education system, pupils from middle class homes were twice as likely to take part in daily live or recorded lessons than those from working class households (Sutton Trust, 2020).
As the school day moved online, the digital divide was clear to see, from schools lacking resources and knowhow to shift classrooms into the virtual realm to students with no internet access or support network at home to help with their learning. If education is to shift into the virtual world more permanently, these inequalities need to be addressed so that students, parents and educators can adapt to this ‘new normal’ and ultimately drive success.
“The entire education profession has done a phenomenal job of responding to the emotional and social needs of learners before we even begin to think about the technological aspects we’ve got to grips with,” said Sarah.
“What Covid-19 has done is expose parity of experience; one of the biggest ways in which this should change education is ensuring learners have what they need, when they need it regardless of their circumstances.”
In April, the Department of Education (DfE) launched a range of support through its Get Help with Technology programme. Support included providing laptops, tablets and 4G wireless routers to local authorities and academy trusts, grants to set up digital education platforms and access to a peerto- peer support network for effective use of technology.
For the new academic year, more laptops and tablets have been made available for disadvantaged children in certain year groups and those who have been advised to shield.
“We have taken part in the programme launched by the DfE aimed at providing some students with both the hardware and internet access and we look forward to rolling it out next year even further,” said Ania Hildrey, headteacher at Abbot’s Lea School. “Where barriers persist, we would go out of our way to continue teaching and supporting students who struggle the most.”
“We have already been able to access pupil premium funds for looked after children to purchase laptops and internet dongles where needed,” added James. “We are continuing to work with local authorities to best support those students who remain limited to online accessibility at home. In addition, we have accelerated previous plans to establish an online moodle system to supplement our existing English and maths online learning facility, which provided students with access to their portfolio-based qualifications.”
As a school catering for students age 3-19 with Autism and associated complex learning and social communication needs, Abbot’s Lea School in Liverpool has had to adapt all areas of its approach due to the pandemic. Some students attended hub and reduced on-site provision when the school re-opened, but the vast majority of their students accessed learning from home.
“We had some students with full access to the online world and others where no such access was possible at all,” said Ania.
“Our support varied from weekly phone calls to every family, personal home visits to some, weekly pastoral sessions with the students and online learning platforms. We also sent printed materials home to the students and signposted families to a range of ideas and projects to meaningfully occupy their children’s time. We continued with weekly assemblies, added bedtime story reading and maintained our therapy provision to the students, families and the staff who needed it.”
Ania recognises that nothing will ever be the same, and the start of Abbot’s Lea’s new term will look very different from previous years. “All of our meetings with families, including annual reviews, will be carried out remotely (with the exception of those families that simply do not have any access to the internet). As the learning onsite is also likely to be interrupted from time to time by the peaks of the pandemic, we are now more ready than we were before, to ensure that teaching simply transfers onto an online platform.
We will be teaching online for more time each week than before, likely mirroring a lot of the timetabled activities,” added Ania. Many argue that the remote world is no real alternative to bricks and mortar classrooms and lecture theatres, where social cues such as facial expressions, body language and eye contact are easier to ‘read’.
While technology has increased ways for us all to connect, it also highlights our distance from each other. The social togetherness of bustling campuses, cafeterias and staff rooms have been missed over the last five months, but Sarah thinks embracing these challenges give us all the opportunity to rethink education.
“We’re realising that those relationships and connections that make education tick can still develop and flourish even when we’re miles apart from one another,” said Sarah.
“The physical classroom walls can sometimes create barriers; working in a more digital environment has helped educators to rethink and reinvigorate how, when and where learning can happen and that has made some real magic happen. It’s vital to understand that whilst technology has been invaluable throughout this whole period, it’s less about the vehicle and more about the driver – it’s the energy and dedication of educators and learners that has kept things going. I’d hope that there’s a well-deserved and perhaps new-found respect of just how difficult teaching can be!”
“Covid-19 has united people in a shared experience, I’d like to see that this – coupled with greater skill and confidence in technology use – could see collaborations beyond the physical confines of spaces, learners connecting from different environments and with different experiences to really broaden the ways in which we think about education.”
The dark cloud of coronavirus may have some silver linings, but challenges still persist and are likely to be felt for years to come. “Education is going to be tested beyond recognition,” said James.
“Those students in years 10 and 12, starting years 11 and 13 in September, are likely to be significantly adversely impacted as a result of a five month gap in their studies, so as difficult as this year’s cohort has experienced inequality, the chances are that next year’s cohort will see even further suffering.”
“Education will always prevail,” Ania added. “It is not only a statutory duty, but it is a fundamental right, too. It will change its shape, be delivered in different ways, via different media, promoting different foci, for sure. For example, we know that the Recovery Curriculum is now on everyone’s minds, with the focus during the next year on not just catching up, re-learning, but also genuinely learning to withstand the social pressures associated with the pandemic.”
Alongside our health system and the economy, education has dominated headlines from the very start of the crisis.
As schools and universities re-open, thoughts have now turned to the future of education – will there be an end to the predominance of exams and physical classrooms? Will the major leap forward into fully embracing digital technology continue to grow speed?
Education providers from every sector have stepped up to adapt and change to fit the rapidly evolving landscape. In the heart of any crisis is an opportunity, and only time will tell how the ‘new normal’ for education will evolve for future generations.