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Education in the Time of COVID-19 #039 – Moss

By CEID Blogger, on 2 September 2020

Education in the Time of COVID-19 – Rebuild, Reconnect, Reimagine

By Gemma Moss

The academic commentary on the COVID-19 crisis and its impacts on education seems divided between those who hope and those who despair.  The hope is that fragilities in the ways that education systems currently work and the inequalities they entrench, made visible during the pandemic, can now be fixed.  Despair suggests that things will only get worse – that the beneficiaries of the crisis will be the same, largely corporate, interests already running things in the wrong way.  The restatement of all that is structurally wrong in education by those speaking from the latter position in many respects demonstrates a crisis of optimism on the left, as Elaine Unterhalter pointed out in her blog in this series, Whose tomorrow? Six ideas for education in a different world.  This blog follows Unterhalter’s contribution in suggesting resilient optimism is precisely what we need right now. And that the case to be made for optimism at a point of crisis depends upon where, and at what, researchers choose to look.

The UKRI/ESRC-funded research project I and colleagues at UCL, Institute of Education have been running under the title, A duty of care and a duty to teach: educational priorities in response to Covid-19 provides a good example.   We have learnt a lot about how this crisis has unfolded by focusing our attention on primary schools in England.  We did so precisely because they remain closely connected to their local communities: early news coverage showed individual schools responding to those communities’ immediate needs by getting food to families and pupils in want.  This is not something normally reckoned as part of a teacher’s workload, but was nevertheless happening without delay and on the schools’ own initiative.

We used survey and interview methods to track schools’ responses to the COVID-19 crisis over time and understand teachers’ priorities and actions, as well as their reflections on the lessons they had learnt from this experience for education going forward.  Over the same time frame, we also mapped government pronouncements on COVID-19 and education, and how researchers, trade unions, professional associations and the press were contributing to an unfolding media narrative about the impacts of COVID-19 on education and what should be done about it.

The combination of data has been enlightening.  Not least because teachers on the ground weren’t waiting to be told what to do, rather they were responding to immediate needs in their communities as best they could, with the resources to hand.  Not all schools responded in the same way. Some heads were better than others at drawing their staff into collective decision-making about where the immediate priorities lay.  The most pressing needs might vary, and certainly our data show clear differences in how teachers’ responses were shaped by the levels of deprivation in their communities.

Schools were not waiting to be told what to do because there was no advice addressing the problems they faced. Moreover, when government advice came it was often impossible to act on in practice (e.g.: putting in place the two metre social distancing rule for pupils when re-opening would have meant doubling classroom space and doubling staff, something no school could do) or addressed issues that for schools simply weren’t a priority.  The relatively early decision government took to introduce funding for catch-up programmes to run when schools reopened was out of sync with the priorities in school: to care for pupils’ well-being and support learning taking place under radically changed conditions. “Catching-up” fast to meet unadjusted accountability targets seemed profoundly out of step with teachers’ own perceptions of what was most needed.  This has remained the case right through the period of data collection.

If teachers’ priorities and reflections were at odds with government pronouncements, they were equally at odds with much of the advice stemming from the research community.  This is a salutary point.  Much of the earliest research to make it into the public domain focused on calculating what pupils would have lost by not being in school.  The larger the gap calculated by the method chosen, the more the research got picked up in the press.  Such calculations largely fed a moral panic in which teachers were blamed for not immediately magicking up solutions which would ensure that high levels of disruption in education had no effects.

The complexities of responding to COVID-19 on the ground are not helped by those with a poor understanding of what the immediate problems actually are, for the simple reason that they have never asked.  If the research community has a role in bringing about change then it has a responsibility to identify the view from the ground and articulate why the solutions proposed elsewhere will not work here.  There are indeed warnings that a research sensibility can provide.  Why take up Microsoft’s offer to fund Teams, its communication platform, and staff training in low-income countries to supply education remotely, when in many cases this is an impractical response?  Not least in areas where pupils and teachers are not sufficiently connected to the web to benefit, and where the bigger question of what constitutes high-quality teaching online for school age children connected in this way is almost entirely unknown. Scale matters.  Tools to track responses to COVID-19 globally or nationally may miss all the local nuance that shapes what is really taking place.

Optimism in the English case arises from seeing teachers find their voice and simply refuse solutions that can’t work, offered by those who have no real grasp of what the local conditions are that make them unworkable.  How researchers design and operationalise their research can make a difference if we work with the communities we would help.  From the project’s insights we have forged a set of principles that can be used to rebuild education systems that have proved too fragile, reconnecting schools with their local communities in more productive ways, and reimagining the purposes and values that education embodies in the world. We must indeed not let this crisis go to waste.

Gemma Moss is Director of the International Literacy Centre and Professor of Literacy at the UCL Institute of Education.

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