NACE Education Adviser Hilary Lowe explores the challenges of “lockdown learning”, how schools are responding, and what lessons could be learned to improve provision for all young people both now and in the years to come.
We have been submerged with COVID-19 stories. But very few of those have told the tale of what is happening to thousands of young people whose lives have been disrupted and delayed or of their teachers who have been keeping calm and carrying on, often going to extraordinary lengths to try to ensure continuity and quality in those young people’s education.
NACE too has been trying to run business as usual wherever possible, working with members and colleagues to find creative and innovative ways of serving the school community in immediate practical ways. We have also been planning for possible future scenarios in the way we work with schools and others involved in supporting the education of highly able young people. We know that things may never be quite the same again. We could even go so far as to hazard that many of the changes we are seeing in the way schools and national organisations are supporting young learners in lockdown are heralding a new age in education.
Could this be the watershed in the paradox of a pandemic that has shut down many forms of normal life which will usher in some of the radical changes pundits are predicting might emerge in other areas of social and economic activity? Could this be the time we move from what is still in many ways the Victorian order of schooling to a new order for the 21st century? An order which connects the best of what we know about how we learn and what we need materially to learn – and how we teach, with the benefits of technology and informed by the needs of society and the individual in the uncertain years to come.
Facing up to the cracks and gaps in the current system
It has been both fascinating and humbling to hear how NACE member schools have moved with great alacrity from largely classroom-based learning to providing schooling, including pastoral support, from a distance. This has often been – although not of course exclusively – from a low base of technological skills and hardware and little training in designing distance learning.
We know with even greater certainty than we did before that young people’s home environments are not always conducive to good learning. We also know that millions of young people do not have access to the technology and basic resources which could support their learning and wellbeing at a distance. The deep cracks in social and economic equity are becoming even more obvious to teachers whose profession at its noblest aims to develop young people to aspire to be the best that they can be. Recent reports from the Sutton Trust, amongst others, attest to the ongoing deep social divisions with which we are already familiar and to the emerging impacts of the pandemic learning lockdown on young people, not only on their achievement but also on their aspirations (Sutton Trust, 2020).
Acknowledging the stark picture painted by the Sutton Trust research on pupil engagement and the capacity of schools to deliver distance learning, we know through contact with our member schools and through our two recent online member meetups that there are both state schools and independent schools making things work despite the odds. NACE has been privileged to be able to gather a wealth of knowledge about both what is working well in supporting learning at home and what is proving most challenging.
Challenges and concerns
Lack of engagement from learners and parents
Lack of technologies and resources at home
Marking and feedback
Accelerating and monitoring progress for all learners
Learner choices and future decisions e.g. options, post-16, post-18
Future behaviours and engagement when back in school
Growing ‘disadvantage gaps’ and how to manage/remediate
Supporting learners with additional, particular needs e.g. SEND
More able learners who are socially disadvantaged
More able learners affected by the pressure they put on themselves or excessive pressure from parents
Transitions and transition points e.g. Years 6 and 13
Negative effects on mental health and wellbeing
Realities of what can be achieved at home
Teacher capacity and skills
Clear, consistent cross-school strategy regarding distance learning and learner contact
Systematic approaches with checks and monitoring
Making expectations clear to learners and parents (e.g. parental guidance and communication apps)
Different models according to need, age, experience of online learning, populations, access to technology and resources e.g. some schools delivering a “normal” timetable of lessons virtually; some providing a mix of timetabled lessons, extended projects, suggested downtime activities; some schools delivering individualised learning packs to pupils’ homes
Many schools favour a mix of online and offline learning
Some schools are trying to tailor provision to individual needs e.g. more able learners having access to appropriately challenging resources, guest speakers, debates and projects which involve higher level skills and knowledge
Some schools are prioritising language development and reading as a priority
In the best of cases schools plan home learning according to best practice in effective learning and effective distance learning e.g. retrieval/recall, use/application, new learning etc; judicious use of what can be learned without too much scaffolding; sometimes readjusting planned schemes and schedules of work; allotting “transition time” for catch-up and individual support
Some schools are trying to connect current distance learning to future work to be undertaken when school restarts
Emphasis on motivation and keeping learners engaged e.g. feedback, praise and rewards, competitions
Emphasis on supporting wellbeing and mental health
Regular contact via email/text and phone e.g. once a week and sometimes once a day for more vulnerable groups
Platforms such as Microsoft Teams, Zoom and Google Classroom enable greater participation and interaction, peer-to-peer and peer-to-teacher
For more insights into how schools are responding to current challenges, watch the recordings of our recent virtual member meetups:
Secondary session (28 April 2020)
Primary session (29 April 2020)
What lasting improvements will be made?
In addition to considering how the many and significant challenges will be addressed, it is interesting to speculate on what will be taken forward from all the excellent practice we have seen being developed. Even more interesting might be to speculate on the more radical consequences of the current period on how we teach and learn in future, not only to be ready for further periods of uncertainty but perhaps because we have glimpsed and exercised approaches that might simply allow to do things better for all our young people. Perhaps we have also glimpsed ways in which we as educators would prefer to approach our profession, learning and development.
To conclude then, here are a few future schooling scenarios. Some are more readily doable and could in the short-term help to mitigate the educational damage currently being wrought. Some will require more radical changes in thinking and resourcing at a national level. It is encouraging that we are seeing in this country at least a recognition of and the opening of a debate about how to alleviate some of the collateral damage produced by the present schooling situation and the educational inequalities it is making more visible.
Every child in school ensured access to appropriate education technology (basic internet access in every home with school-aged children?)
Schools open longer as “learning hubs”, equipped and resourced to support children’s and parents’ learning and wellbeing
Priority given to developing parental and community engagement
School structures and timetables to allow greater tailoring of learning and greater personalisation e.g. through mixed-mode learning, time for one-to-one, consolidation etc
A major focus in all schools on high-level language development, reading and cultural capital
Emphasis on development of metacognition, independent learning and study skills
Planned opportunities for all learners, including the more able, to learn and be assessed at appropriate levels and points in their learning
School staff trained in designing online learning and assessment in conjunction with evidence-based classroom pedagogies
Greater use of technology for professional dialogue, planning and CPD
As well as responding to the current situation through increased online CPD, resources and guidance, NACE is planning additional ways to support schools and more able learners in the medium- and long-term. As always, this will include listening to what members are telling us about what they need, encouraging more schools to join the NACE community, and making our voice heard at policy levels and with partner organisations to ensure that learners, including the most able, are at the heart of any educational change and improvement.