Five ways Covid has changed education

Pandemic has pitched sector into a state of flux and uncertainty

The sight of masked pupils would have been unthinkable prior to the pandemic. Getty
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Covid-19's effects on society range from the glaring to the opaque.

Education epitomises this paradigm. While children have been less likely to suffer illness from catching Covid-19, they have undoubtedly been hit by its fallout, most obviously through lockdowns which affected schooling.

The pandemic pitched the sector into a state of flux, forcing it to come up with solutions for seemingly intractable problems, like how to educate children when they are not in the classroom, or how to assess pupils fairly without exams.

Beyond these immediate challenges, a more worrying picture emerged when warnings began to surface of cuts to education budgets around the world, with girls feared to be disproportionately affected.

Ahead of the Global Education Summit taking place in the UK this week, focusing on access to education, here are five ways the pandemic has borne down on education.

1. There's no place like home (schooling)

With primary and secondary schools frequently closed due to lockdowns, working parents were forced to find the best way to educate their children at home while juggling life's demands.

It would be wrong to downplay the difficulties this presented, yet, according to Oxford Home Schooling, there were positives.

These included learning at the correct pace, a flexible curriculum, control over educational philosophies and improved family ties and social life.

For teachers, a silver lining existed too: parents dismissive of teaching as a profession began to realise what a highly skilled and demanding role it is.

Homeschooling was of course a lot easier when done in roomy houses with good internet access, allowing pupils to take advantage of the multifarious online learning platforms which came to the fore, such as Google Classrooms, Microsoft Teams and, of course, the ubiquitous Zoom.

These digital luxuries were not available to all children of course, with those from poorer countries particularly affected by a lack of internet access.

2. Goodbye to exams — for now

UK exams were cancelled for the second year in a row in June, with grades instead assessed by teachers, based on factors such as mock exams or class work. The change also applied to British schools in the UAE.

UK Education Secretary Gavin Williamson in June said he wanted exams to go ahead in 2022 but acknowledged that “adjustments and mitigations” were needed so pupils would not be at a disadvantage.

“We very much hope and intend exams will go ahead in 2022,” he told the House of Commons' education select committee.

“I very much expect there to be adjustments and mitigations put in place because I think that those youngsters who currently are in Year 10 and Year 12 will have obviously suffered disruption as a result of the pandemic.”

He said it was not possible to “immediately switch back to the situation as it was back in 2019" and new ideas were needed to assess pupil performance.

Those included slimming down some of the subject areas to be tested and pushing back the dates of exams to increase lesson time.

Mr Williamson would want to avoid a repeat of the calamity on his watch in 2020 when the algorithm used to grade exams left thousands of 18-year-olds without university places. After several days of protest by distraught and increasingly angry pupils, he was forced to perform a humiliating U-turn and use teacher-graded assessments instead.

3. Global education budgets scythed

Research made available to The National from Unesco in February showed that education received just 0.8 per cent of the global economic packages designed to mitigate the pandemic.

It also showed that two-thirds of the world’s poorest countries reduced their first post-Covid education budget, compared with one-third of the world's richest countries.

The report also warned of a $2 billion drop in resources into 2022, and that it could be six years before 2018 spending levels are reached again.

Even within the wealthiest G20 nations, the share of the extra spending for education was just 2 per cent across 13 of the countries.

4. Hours of lost learning and a widening educational divide

In the same report, Unesco warned that a reduction in education budgets would cause pre-existing inequalities to mushroom. The uneven picture in global donations to pre-primary education prior to the pandemic is an example of how precarious funding already was.

“We have inequalities at different levels, we have inequalities between the richest countries and the poorest countries,” Manos Antoninis, director of the Global Education Monitoring Report team at the UN body told The National.

“88 per cent of youth in high-income countries completed secondary school, while only 15 per cent did the same in low-income countries.”

He also cited education inequalities that exist within national borders.

“The richest households in low and middle-income countries are three times as likely to complete secondary school as the poorest.

“And even among those who complete secondary school, the richest are twice as likely to achieve the minimum skills of literacy and numeracy.”

His theory was backed up by the UK schools survey which found that in March and April last year the learning gap between rich and poor pupils increased by almost a half.

5. Testing times for pupils and staff in UK

Keeping boisterous ranks of teenagers under control was an unenviable challenge before the pandemic struck. When it did, the requirement for order became less of a behavioural preference and more of an epidemiological necessity.

When schoolchildren were actually at school and not homeschooling, they were kept in bubbles and often started school at staggered times to avoid daily super-spreading events at the school gates.

Secondary school-aged children were for a time required to wear masks in classrooms, and now schoolchildren of all ages are expected to take Covid tests twice a week — the only tests a child may actually want to fail.

Education has not escaped the UK's costly “pingdemic” either. If one child is pinged by the NHS test and trace app and told to self-isolate at home for 10 days, the rest of his or her bubble or class has to follow suit.

With the situation causing many practical difficulties for educators, the UK government is considering a change that instead of seeing pupils isolate, would see them take daily Covid tests at school.

Updated: July 27, 2021, 10:04 AM