Has the Pandemic Taught us any Important Lessons?

Posted in : Cassidy's Comments on 10 June 2021
Frank Cassidy
Former Principal & Regional Officer of ASCL
Issues covered: Coronavirus; School Return; Easing of Restrictions; Education

As we tentatively move out of the long dark tunnel of the Covid 19 experience, blinking nervously in the sunlight of somewhat brighter days, it is perhaps an appropriate time to reflect on what has happened to us as individuals and as members of society. One background theme has been the struggle between the need for restrictions imposed in the common good and what has been characterised by some as loss of individual freedoms. There have been countless examples of personal sacrifice and concern for others but sadly also examples of selfishness and indifference.

The role of the state in our lives has grown and priorities at a national level completely upended. In the face of an unprecedented crisis, money was found, and action taken to deal with the threat. No doubt arguments will rage in the months and years ahead about whether decisions by government were swift enough or the right ones, but what it has shown is that the status quo can be altered. The pandemic has also placed a spotlight on some difficult issues like NHS funding, provision of social care for an aging population, the poverty divide and the willingness of government to actually fund promised “levelling up “plans for education.

The TES have reported this week on the surprise resignation of “Catch Up Tsar” Sir Keven Collins following the government’s announcement of only 1.4 billion pounds to support educational recovery from the pandemic, given that he had recommended 15 billion to allow for expanded teacher training and 100 million extra hours of tutoring for underachieving, disadvantaged pupils. His views are supported by head teachers with NAHT’s Paul Whiteman stressing that “educational recovery cannot be done on the cheap”, and by Geoff Barton of ASCL pointing out that Sir Keven has tried his best for children and young people but that the political will just is not there to support him.

Back in March 2021 just after Sir Keven Collins was appointed to spearhead educational recovery from the pandemic, Geoff Barton rightly challenged the government’s underwhelming proposals at that time by stating that; “schools don’t need policy gimmicks, such as proposals rumoured in the media for extended school days and a longer summer term. What schools need is sufficient funding to be able to provide high-quality, targeted support for the pupils who have fallen behind”. These are of course the self-evident remedies and are reflected in the recommendations made by Sir Keven.

Our whole approach to examinations and progression of pupils through their educational career has also been forced to change. Here in Northern Ireland the eleven plus was set aside with a mixture of relief from some and alarm by others. It remains to be seen what long term effects this interruption will have on pupil achievement, but it strengthens the argument that life would go on without it.

 A-Levels and GCSEs went through significant turmoil with teacher assessment rightly elevated to a much higher level after much angst and dodgy statistical results modelling.  Again, it remains to be seen how this affects long term progress, but it has certainly opened the door to a radical rethink of how we should best assess our young people. Anecdotal early evidence suggests that continuous school- based assessments are equally rigorous and by no means a soft option for students.

Perhaps the biggest change to schooling and family lives has been the arrival of remote learning and zoom classes. Early optimism that technology could usher in a new era for learning quickly evaporated when the reality of loss of teacher supervision and classroom social interaction kicked in. The loss of learning estimated at 50% for maths and 30% in reading related topics is also heavily skewed towards children in disadvantaged settings further enhancing the existing achievement gap between the more and less affluent.

Research by NFER confirms concerns by teachers about access to appropriate technology and lower engagement in online learning by disadvantaged pupils. Conversely online learning among private school pupils appears to have been more intensively pursued. It is suggested that fee paying parents had higher expectations about what schools should deliver in this regard.

Changes to the learning environments in schools when children returned have been profound with previously unthinkable measures put in place to ensure social distancing and reduce infection risks. There have been numerous examples of how teachers and school managers have been inventive and extremely effective in organising bubbles, mask wearing and safer learning situations. It is a tribute to the quality of our educational professionals that they have made this work.

The British Medical Journal reports that while virus outbreaks in schools do occur, vaccination among vulnerable older groups and lower incidence of serious infection among the young have vindicated the decision to reopen.

“The emerging consensus is that schools do not seem to be amplifiers of transmission, and that cases in schools simply reflect prevalence within the local community.”

Outgoing First Minister Arlene Foster back in November 2020 made the perceptive comment that we are going to have to learn to live with Covid-19 and the intervening months of lockdowns, vaccination rollouts and tentative reopening have proved her to be right. While this is not a pleasant reality to come to terms with it is certainly proving to be a wakeup call to us all who have taken so much for granted in our way of life. Some of the changes that it has brought look like becoming a permanent feature of future lifestyles like working from home for a percentage of the time and holding zoom meetings rather causing unnecessary carbon footprints.

In spite of the political fallout caused by the inevitable post Brexit difficulties, our politicians have worked together well on pandemic issues and there is an acceptance that health and education issues in particular need to be approached in the same collaborative spirit. Let us hope that this will be the lasting legacy of Covid 19.


This article is correct at 10/06/2021

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Frank Cassidy
Former Principal & Regional Officer of ASCL

The main content of this article was provided by Frank Cassidy. Email frankcassidy63@outlook.com

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