Kieran Cooke is a branch officer in Chingford and Woodford Green Conservatives, a former County Councillor candidate and an educational adviser.
The current media and public discourse is filled with concerns and challenges around getting young people back into schools and the lost learning that has occurred due to school closures.
However at the same time, new opportunities have arisen which benefit schools and young people but have received little airtime. These opportunities are due to the quick response and innovative ways that the school system as a whole – from individual teachers in their classrooms to those leading the education system – have reacted over the course of the pandemic to date.
In April 2019, the Government published its strategy to help improve and increase the effective use of technology in education. Little did it know at the time how important this would be in supporting pupils’ learning during the period of school closures.
The rate at which schools, and the education system as a whole, adapted and innovated to provide online learning opportunities for young people was impressive. Covid-19 has accelerated progress in the use of technology in education at a rate that was not imagined prior to the pandemic. This has required educators to improve their digital skills, helping them to future-proof their own skill-set in using technology to improve learning for all.
Of course the missing ingredient here, as highlighted by school closures, is the lack of equity of access to digital technologies for all young people. Prior to the pandemic, there were many ideas around reimagining the future of learning.
But this pandemic has moved that conversation on significantly, by necessity. The Government now has the opportunity to continue this progress in the use of education technology to support improved learning outcomes for all. This will shift learning from something that happens in a physical classroom to a blended model on a more permanent basis, as well as future-proof the education system and prepare young people for the increasingly digital workplace and society.
Another strategy that has benefitted from a ‘turbo-charge’ during the pandemic has been the Government’s Teacher Recruitment and Retention Strategy to address the need for more teachers who then remain in the profession.
Applications to the teaching profession have soared in this period, with UCAS’ latest data indicating that between June 15 and July 20, there were 91 per cent more applications to teacher training compared to the same period last year. Encouragingly, this increase includes shortage subjects such as physics and maths, which are going to be crucial for the long-term Covid-19 recovery and our future economy.
While some of this is because of the economic downturn in the private sector, it is also likely to be due to an increase in society’s perception of teachers due to them having excelled in ‘their moral duty’ to keep schools open for key workers’ children and vulnerable children and the sense of fulfilment and increased insights of parents in teaching their own children.
This improved perception of the teaching profession is long overdue and a key characteristic of the highest performing education systems globally. We now need to build upon this opportunity by supporting these teachers throughout their career with high-quality professional development and conducive working cultures, thereby retaining them within the profession.
Perhaps the biggest opportunity to have come out of the situation is how schools and the learning of young people have risen up the political agenda and in the public’s mind. Getting all young people back into school as a non-negotiable priority has reminded everyone of the fundamental importance of schools beyond just learning.
For many young people, school is where they feel safe, feed themselves and develop emotionally and socially. While this has always been recognised, the Coronavirus pandemic has highlighted just how important this is.
For example, there was a 32 per cent increase in contact with the NSPCC during lockdown and an estimated 2.3 million young people have not completed any school work during school closures. This shows how vital it is for decision makers to continue the investment and support for schools and that is why the Prime Minister’s recent announcement on the increase in per pupil funding is welcome.
That way schools can continue to fulfil their key role in contributing to the long term recovery from Covid-19 by upskilling and preparing all young people to contribute to rebuilding the economy and wider society.
So while not underestimating the challenges that schools, the education system and most importantly young people themselves have faced over the last few months, let us not lose sight of the opportunities that have been realised. By building on these, the education system will bounce-back better and give itself a head start in improving outcomes for all young people.