Facing up to education's own version of 'long Covid'

Written by Steve Rollett

Deputy CEO, CST

The sudden and significant changes to our lives caused by the COVID-19 pandemic are etched in our individual and collective memories. Prior to 2020, it was hard to imagine a world in which our lives would undergo such dramatic changes, with many of us – including our children – relocating much of their day to day lives online.

The implications for education were extraordinary, with schools and trusts showing agility and sensitivity in how they moved education first from the classroom to the computer, and subsequently how they returned to face-to-face teaching as restrictions eased.

During this time, the Education Policy Institute (EPI) and Renaissance came together to provide a unique and important insight into the educational impact of the pandemic on learning. The series of reports they published provided an evidence-based analysis that informed responses from practitioners and policy makers alike.

The responsibility to rise to the educational challenge posed by COVID-19 will stay with us long into the future. This is not, though, a call for pessimism. It is a call for action.

Their new series of reports come shortly after the World Health Organisation (WHO) declared COVID-19 no longer to be a global health emergency. This is, of course, welcome news. But it does not mean, as the WHO acknowledges, that the threat posed by the disease has vanished.

Nor does it mean, as teachers and leaders are acutely aware, that the educational effects of COVID-19 are in the past. For example, there is evidence of a marked impact on attendance, which we know through other research is linked to
educational outcomes.

But what can we see of the extent of COVID-19’s long term impact on learning? Just as it was vital during the peak of the pandemic to understand the immediate impact on education, it is important we understand the longer-term effects too – so that teachers, leaders and policy makers understand the new educational landscape and can make informed decisions about where to prioritise efforts and resource. This is particularly important for our most disadvantaged pupils, who we know are too often most impacted by social and economic upheaval.

Renaissance and EPI’s latest collaboration provides an evidence-based analysis of how well education appears to be recovering from the pandemic. You will see reasons for optimism in the report, such as the recovery in reading, but also matters of concern, such as in mathematics.

The report also demonstrates that, in line with established patterns, pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds have lost more than their more advantaged peers, with a gap around 6% wider as a result of the pandemic.

This must be a clarion call for policy makers not to forget their pandemic-related responsibility to children and young people did not end when children returned to classrooms or when facemasks were removed. The responsibility to rise to the educational challenge posed by COVID-19 will stay with us long into the future. This is not, though, a call for pessimism. It is a call for action.

One suspects that, given the impact in mathematics, this should be a priority area for government. Indeed, mathematics education is an area the government is interested in, as it has indicated ambitions to make some form of maths compulsory until 18. While this report does not look at the impact of post-16 maths education, it would be logical to conclude that any plans the government might have for improving the maths abilities of older children could be undermined if the foundation upon which they are built is not secure. The evidence in the EPI/Renaissance report shows that COVID-19 has had an adverse effect on the foundation laid in maths in the primary phase. To be clear, this is not the fault of teachers, who have worked tirelessly to mitigate the complex challenges caused by the pandemic. But the evidence indicates that despite these efforts there has been an impact on maths for younger children.

This is something the government must tackle with vigour in primary and secondary schools – and it requires resource. We know the most important resource in the classroom is an effective teacher. For this reason, recent evidence showing the drop off in recruitment of teachers into the profession is alarming. It would be alarming at any time, but it is especially so in the context of the long-term impact of the pandemic that is illustrated in this report. Members are telling us it’s not just teachers too; recruitment of non-teaching staff and teaching assistants is increasingly hard for many trusts.

Effective action within schools and across education systems can only follow from a sound diagnosis of the problem. Accordingly, we are grateful for the ongoing collaborative endeavours of EPI and Renaissance to explore the impact of the pandemic on education.

The diagnosis needs to be matched by action from government, starting with a much more potent attempt from government to recruit teachers and teaching assistants into schools.

Access the new EPI Report on ‘Recovering from the Covid-19 Pandemic: Analysis of Star Assessments’

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