Alice Barnard is Chief Executive of the Edge Foundation

Nobody could have predicted the effect the pandemic would have on our lives.

Indeed, nothing has challenged the status quo quite like it.

Over the past 18 months, we’ve faced huge trials and witnessed incredible resilience, not least in our education sector.

Despite the cancellation of exams, an overnight move to virtual learning, and an ongoing mental health crisis, schools, teachers and parents around the country have stepped up to the plate.

Last year, Edge released a report exploring the impact of covid-19 on education. Today, we provide an update.

With time to reflect, and with insights and case studies from across the educational landscape, our second bulletin provides a more optimistic read.

It focuses on ways in which we can improve the education system, using valuable lessons learned during lockdown.

Reading it, I feel hopeful that the resilience and innovation we’ve seen over the past year will prevail against voices calling for a return to the old ways. 

Ongoing hurdles

In discussing opportunities, we cannot ignore the challenges. 18 months into the pandemic, attainment, engagement and inequality have emerged as some of the most pressing issues.

According to Dr Angela Donkin, Chief Social Scientist at NFER, attainment and engagement have modestly improved in secondary schools since the start of lockdown.

However, NFER’s research also suggests that around a quarter of children are still not engaging with their learning.

More worryingly, the attainment gap has widened faster for children eligible for free school meals than for those from more advantaged backgrounds.

The theme here is consistent.

Paul Newton (Research Chair, Ofqual) highlights how secondary school students with poorer home learning circumstances, i.e. limited access to technology or study space, have found it harder to learn.

In short, learners from socioeconomically disadvantaged backgrounds have been worse affected by the pandemic.

In the short and longer-term, this inequality gap must be urgently addressed.

Careers education: A mixed bag

Emily Tanner, Head of Research at The Careers & Enterprise Company confirms that the pandemic has hurt workplace learning and apprenticeship opportunities. Fortunately, despite a reduction in face-to-face employer engagement, there are silver linings.

Careers leaders, employers and activity providers have collaborated in unprecedented ways to produce novel approaches to careers engagement for young people, incorporating personal guidance, careers learning within the curriculum and virtual study visits.

There is plenty to learn here as we move forward.

Better parental engagement

Lockdown resulted in what can only be described as the single largest experiment in parental engagement that schools have ever attempted. As any parent knows, this was not without its challenges. Nevertheless, according to John Jolly, CEO of Parentkind, the percentage of parents worried about their child's education has significantly reduced since the pandemic began.

Crucially, this appears to correlate with parents’ growing confidence in supporting learning at home. Almost two-thirds of parents polled stated being more aware of what their child was learning. And as with employers, online engagement (such as virtual parents evenings) has allowed parents to engage with schools and teachers more easily.

Tackling youth unemployment 

Post-pandemic, unemployment is expected to surge, with young people bearing the brunt.

Naomi Clayton 100x100

Naomi Clayton from the Learning and Work Institute highlights government measures that may mitigate this impact.

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This includes things like Kickstart and incentives for employers to take on apprentices.

James Turner, CEO of the Sutton Trust, suggests extending both the Pupil Premium and the National Tutoring Programme beyond the age of 16 and expanding targeted support for disadvantaged young people in apprenticeships.

However, Naomi believes these initiatives are not enough on their own. She says a government Youth Guarantee is the only way to ensure that all young people who are not employed or in education have access to a job, apprenticeship, or training place. 

Leveraging technologies to support learning catch up

Louise Rowland (Deputy Chief Executive, Ufi) champions the power of digital technologies to improve skills for work. Digital tools, she says, will help overcome a rise in youth unemployment that’s heavily skewed towards those from Black and Asian backgrounds.

As we seek to re-engage pupils in schools, we must also embrace mobile devices, which provide the lowest barriers to learning access.

Collaborative learning platforms and gamification could also boost motivation and learner outcomes in the longer term. There is much more on this in the report.

Policymakers: take note!

While shockwaves from the pandemic continue to ripple, they’re no longer the disruption they once were. The pressure is now on policymakers to formally strengthen the best innovations from the pandemic and engrain these into a reformed education system. 

As our latest bulletin shows, there has been fantastic creative thinking during lockdown.

Arguments for a return to the old ways are dying. Only policymakers can formalise what we now know works, ensuring that we build back better. I encourage everyone to download the full report "Covid-19 on Education – Perspectives on The Impact of Lockdown".

Alice Barnard is Chief Executive of the Edge Foundation

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