In the brand-new decade of January 2020, I was a university student still just about finding my feet in my second year. To get to this point, I had already done seven years of Primary School, and another seven years in Secondary. If you had asked me what I thought of Education in this January, I like to think I would have been able to tell you what a pretty average school experience was like.
I would wake up at a time I thought was absurdly too early and get the train up to school, where I would try my best at subjects that I thought I would never get a handle on. I would eat lunch with my friends and then learn some more, and at a time I’m now jealous of, my day would be finished by 3 o’clock. My evening would be my own, to procrastinate homework and talk to people I’d spent all day with, and then I would go back to bed and start the whole routine again.
In January 2020, it had been two years since I had left school, and I felt that being at university wasn’t too different. There was no uniform, the lessons were fewer and further apart, but the workload somehow felt doubled. In 2020, I thought I knew everything about Education that I was ever going to know.
That was January. February came and went quickly, like it always does, but then came March.
It’s no small feat to say that COVID-19 has impacted us all in one way or another. When we all sat down on our sofas in March 2020 to watch Boris Johnson on the TV put the whole country into a national lockdown, I don’t think that the momentous occasion was wasted on any of us.
For most of us, in our lifetimes, we’ve never been asked to stay at home, we’ve never been asked to barricade our doors and lock ourselves up, only being able to talk to our loved ones over the phone, or if you were lucky, through a window.
Some people took advantage of the time at home; banana bread recipes became the new craze, and everyone suddenly discovered a love of yoga videos on YouTube. But just after the initial whirlwind wore off, we were faced with a whole new challenge: how to function in a virtual world. One such area that felt this sudden change the most, was Education.
I watched as my university scrambled to understand Teams calls and deliver lessons to students whose cameras were always turned off, and microphones were always muted or unmuted accidentally, even if you’d never touched your laptop. Curriculums managed to muddle through however, thanks to the dedication of our teachers (and the creators of Teams!), and eventually through the ups and downs of 2020, and 2021, by last September, schools were filled with students again.
As we begin to regain some stability in a time that feels anything but stable, thousands of studies have emerged that examine the impact that COVID-19 has had on the Education sector, and a million more articles and conversations have speculated what this might mean for students 10 years from now. I decided for my first few weeks working in Education, to ask around and see if there were any common threads that people had noticed from every different facet of our Education system.
I thought the best place to start was the kids themselves, who had seen firsthand how education had changed.
Primary School Student
This one, I could have predicted a little bit. I don’t think you could have found any child that said that they truly missed school. Their friends, of course, being allowed their freedom, absolutely. But school, with all of its work, and waking up early, and being desperate to be out on the football field instead of sitting at a desk? Probably not so much.
Kids suddenly had all sense of routine and normalcy completely stripped away, and for some children, they weren’t at an age where they could truly grasp the situation and understand why. This made me chuckle, because I remember one afternoon in the glorious 2020 summer that we had, being absolutely desperate to be able to go swimming. And by swimming, I really just meant cooling off from the sun, hopefully with a cocktail and a reading book on holiday. But for a little kid whose only wish is to go swimming, and knowing that this won’t happen anytime soon, must have been really frustrating.
Not being able to see family members was also such a difficult separation. As a child, we would visit my grandma every week, and before the pandemic, we had dinner at my grandad’s house every Wednesday. As an adult, I found not being able to see them hard, and I can’t imagine the confusion for children when they were told that not only could they not see their grandparents, but that it would be dangerous if they did. It’s no revelation to think about how much this must have affected both children, and relatives.
My favourite thing about talking to kids, is how simply they can explain exactly what you’re feeling, and they don’t even realise. I agree 100%. I’ll be upset if another lockdown happens again, I like how things are now too.
This is something that has been highlighted over, and over, and over again, and we can’t give it any less credit than it deserves. In a normal classroom, students would be taught the full hour, and any students that showed signs of struggling could be sat with, one-on-one and provided support to be able to learn. Over Teams, this just proved impossible.
If we take a second, let’s try to break down a typical hour’s Teams call. We start with 30 kids, let’s say we’d be lucky if only ten had technical problems. Then we have a handful of students whose internet connection means that their screen lags, or they have parents or siblings working from home too, and they have nowhere quiet to sit. And we can’t forget the students who would rather be looking at their phones. It’s easy to catch someone on their phone under a desk, not so easy when their camera is off and they’re still in bed.
You’d be lucky if all the kids had seen the work you set before class started, and you’d be luckier to be able to share your screen to talk it through without something crashing. It’s a circus, and it comes down to the incredibly simple fact, that despite how hard we know that teachers tried, students just sometimes struggled to learn.
Education is a building block, dating all the way back to the time you first learn to read. What we’re noticing now, is that you can’t build your tower high enough, if you’re missing the whole middle section. That’s the virtual education legacy.
A Level Students
The social aspect to school, is a huge contributor to the development of students, especially those who have gone from being pre-teens, to the age where they’re coming up to choosing their university careers. Not only did they miss out on some of those key memories, like prom, or the last day of school, but they also missed their first real hand at exams that set you up for A Levels, and university tests.
These are key educational tools that are nothing if not learned, and through the use of written evidence and lesson contribution to mark grades that graded this year’s GCSE’s, our next few years of A Level results, will be the first chance that these students will have ever had to study and undertake these tests.
I will now never be able to liken my high school experience to those only a few years younger than me, as our time has been populated with a vastly different circumstance.
My next step was to ask the parents, who had been responsible for the new dreaded ‘home schooling’, about what they had noticed in their children, and what they thought this might mean.
Parents of Primary and Secondary Students
There’s two debts of gratitude that we owe here. The first is to the parents who overnight, suddenly became parent and teacher, and tried to balance their thousands of other responsibilities, with a new full-time job. For parents who had children in different years, or doing different subjects, this could have easily been doubled, or even tripled.
The second debt of gratitude is to our teachers, who did their best to support parents in doing this, sending out worksheets and trying their best with virtual learning when children don’t have the greatest attention span at the best of times. I don’t think anyone looks back at this time particularly favorably, but it’s a credit to everyone involved that our kids got through it with a continued education (and parents got through it with a glass of wine!).
Another important point is raised here too, looking at the basic skills that children learn, being around other children. Learning to play, learning to share and to communicate, are huge aspects of growing up. It can also be a place for children to escape a troubled home life and develop important emotional connections and understandings. It’s a key factor that kids were deprived of in lockdown, and it’s something we’re going to have to be mindful to encourage in the years going forward, to make sure that our lockdown kids can catch up.
Research shows that if children fall behind in human development early in life, that this can provide a lifelong disadvantage. Children aren’t getting the same social contact and life experience to support them that those did only a few years earlier. This is an incredibly important impact of the virus, which might not be so commonly examined.
One thing that every parent I spoke to had highlighted however, and something that I remember counting myself lucky for with my family, was the time that they got back with their children. One parent told me how her children spent all of the beautiful 2020 summer we had playing outside, climbing trees, making up games, studying insects and kicking around balls. Looking back on the photos, she had said, with their sun kissed faces and happy smiles, would reassure her that her children would look back on this time fondly, and that she probably didn’t need to worry too much about their futures.
After all, I’ve never met a parent whose aim for their children didn’t come simply down to their happiness, and the toothy smiles that they collected as proof.
I look back on this time and through all of the ups and downs of worrying about the pandemic, what might happen to my friends and family, I at least remember this with a genuine smile, knowing I would never have had that time otherwise.
I also feel incredibly lucky that I didn’t have to juggle young children’s home schooling during an already tough lockdown. I tried to teach my younger sister one school class, and the both of us came away from it feeling more confused than when we started. Parents, I truly salute you.
So now, let’s hear from the teachers themselves. We’ll start with Primary.
Primary School Teachers
Warning: this section discusses mentions of abuse, and should be treated with caution if this could prove triggering to some.
This is something that I had wondered about during lockdown, and something that I think lots of studies are going to be looking at. It’s something that the latest Ofsted reports have highlighted, and one of the darkest sides to lockdown education; the difficulty in detecting and preventing abuse.
Studies have shown that the numbers of children being harmed or abused is on the rise, and the pandemic has direly contributed to this. I won’t include the statistics, because they’re easily found and better explained by specialists than I ever could, but they’re staggering, and they’re heartbreaking.
And this might only be the tip of the iceberg. Lockdowns, closures of schools and a lack of health visitor visits has had a huge impact on family life, and there are wide fears that abuse cases have risen significantly.
That’s not to say that the measures we have in place are failing, those in social care are still working as hard, if not harder than ever, but with the distance that schools and pupils now have, catching those incidents has never proven more difficult.
In the ever-thriving teaching tool, you always have to look at two stars, to every wish. The stars have been difficult to find sometimes, but the appreciation shown to teachers, and their ability to adapt so brilliantly when teaching is something that should be applauded. Teachers have become near expects at online learning, something that could have a positive impact in the future, and teachers are always grateful to feel appreciated, which I’m sure many did when parents found themselves counting down the hours of home-schooling days, and begging for their children to return to school.
I imagine this year’s ‘end of year’ presents, might have a little bit more of understanding and gratitude than they used to.
So how about secondary? With teenagers that could arguably have a higher or lower level of attention span than primary children, how did lockdown education fare here?
Secondary School Teachers
Mental health over the last few years has started to become the forefront of the conversation around teenage health, but even with this new push, it’s still widely misunderstood and misrepresented. The prolonged isolation, the explosion of new social media avenues and the lack of proper structure, seems to have affected teenagers more than studies are going to be able to represent.
We start with the normal anxiety that every teenager feels, the fear of not fitting in, the pressure of exams, and the general new understanding of the world and how it works. Then we add the stress of a worldwide pandemic, not being able to escape your parents if they’re driving you mad, and the pressure of social media which is the only avenue of escape, and we’ve already more than doubled the stress levels of teenagers.
And all of that’s not to mention that some kids are predisposed to mental health issues, either due to circumstance, biology or otherwise, that can increase this exponentially. The Mental Health of Children and Young People in England 2020 Report (produced by the NHS Office for National Statistics), has been tracking more than 3,000 young people over the last four years. Its latest findings found that one in six children aged 5-16 had a probable mental health disorder, up from one in nine, only three years before. Older girls were found to have the highest rates.
Children cited everything from family tensions, to financial concerns, as well as feeling isolated from their friends and fear about the current pandemic, as causing this shift. It’s been found that more than half of young people were always or often feeling anxious, the highest level that has ever been recorded.
If there’s one thing that we’re going to notice an incredible rise in over the next few years, it’s the mental health repercussions in young adults that resulted from this lockdown. It’s going to need dedicated government support for young people to access, and a much better examination of mental health in teenagers, to replace the oftentimes outdated and misunderstood conversations that we have now.
College Faculty Members
Digital poverty is something that for most people, they didn’t have to worry about. Most people nowadays have access to the internet, and some form of device, but we can’t forget about the incredible amount of people who didn’t have these basics needed for virtual learning. Government schemes provided devices and dongles for Wi-Fi to try and minimise this disadvantage, and colleges and schools arranged for teachers to deliver the necessities to students who needed this support.
Digital poverty was highlighted by this pandemic, and will hopefully now have the attention that was previously lacking in this area. It speaks not only to digital poverty, but a general lack of basic necessities that are tied to poverty in this country, and can massively impact education, lockdown-based or not. This leads me onto a positive that came from virtual learning, and the pandemic, an increase in the accessibility of education.
Virtual learning has created an entirely new avenue of accessible education. For some people, education prior to the pandemic, was entirely inaccessible. This could have been due to a thousand issues of circumstance, and now that this area has advanced in leaps and bounds, education has opened up for so many more people. Everyone from stay-at-home mums during nap times, or carers for whom leaving the house is a difficult task, can now access online learning and develop their education.
That’s not to say that education is now a free-for-all and that everyone can access it, because there are still thousands of reasons that can make education only a dream for some people. It doesn’t eradicate educational poverty, or societal expectations of the home, but at least this gets us a couple of steps further. Or I suppose, a couple of virtual steps further.
This virtual experience extended further than Primary, Secondary and even Colleges, and was felt by University students across the country.
This is the area of pandemic education that I relate the most to, having been a university student myself during the pandemic. Halfway through my second year, my lecture halls were abandoned for my bedroom, and when the end of my degree finally rolled around after what felt like an eternity, I submitted my dissertation on a Thursday night from my bed, and never had a graduation.
I know I speak for a lot of my friends, and the wider Graduates of 2021, when I say that as much as our tutors and universities did their best, we still felt disappointed, and a little bit robbed.
I’m only one of a many number of people who felt that their money had been taken, and little had been returned, especially for those like me who invested their money into houses, and signed contracts that we weren’t able to squeeze out of, despite the circumstances. When looking at the lockdown University experience, there’s a thousand avenues that contributed to our overall feeling of being a little bit let down, far too many to start listing now.
Students like me, suddenly had to rely on ourselves to be own our teachers, and when doing pre-lecture and pre-seminar prep, you were expected to have a full understanding of the subject, based on nothing more than PowerPoint slides and a voiceover that you couldn’t pause to catch back up. Lectures suddenly became four-hour undertakings, as opposed to hourly like before, and somehow you felt you were coming away with only half of the understanding.
I was unlucky enough to experience my third year when lockdown was still relatively new, and my only hope for new students coming in, or the most recent classes graduating, is that lockdown university now has a little more structure, and tutors are using the full capabilities of online learning to be able to be present and get back to the brilliant teaching methods that we had become used to.
From my university career, into my actual career, let’s hear from the company and that inspired and encouraged me to examine this impact in the first place.
The words of wisdom from our very own Best in Class director, Scott Holt himself.
When I started working with Best in Class, it was my first step into Education Recruitment, and so I didn’t know what the climate had looked like before COVID had hit. I asked him what this time had been like, and he told me that recruitment was terrifying, our supply staff naturally had no idea what was going to happen to them, and how they were going to earn a living.
When schools re-opened, recruitment found that a lot of professionals were reluctant to return to work in the middle of COVID provisions, and this was a big adjustment for the sector. When normality started to return somewhat, a many number of people applied for permanent jobs because of the uncertainty that supply work posed, in the event of another lockdown.
Recruitment suddenly found that fewer people were available to cover vacancies that could usually be filled with supply, and a lot of Teaching professionals had left the industry, into retirement or alternative careers. The Education sector was hit very hard, potentially second only to the medical profession, and we’re all still working hard to help to stabilise a vocation, a profession and passion for many.
So, What is the COVID Education Legacy?
When I started this week’s blog and pitched the idea to Sophie and Scott, I hoped that from all of the conversations I would have, some communal strands could emerge that would paint me a picture of the hardest challenges facing Education right now. But with every conversation I had, and every person that I spoke to, I realised that I could write forever and still not be able to talk about even half of the issues that Education faces, in a period that is completely unprecedented.
I didn’t even begin to touch upon the disadvantage to children with additional learning needs, or the psychological impact to children who have grown up for three years being told that playing with their friends is illegal, and dangerous. The impacts of COVID are going to be far more reaching than any of us can predict, or even keep track of. We’re only at the top of the diving board above a pool with no water, and at the tip of the iceberg that sinks the ship.
The only thing we can do now is prepare the lifeboats with provisions, and do everything we can to try and stop the water.