Back down the time-tunnel: Forgetting the lessons of Covid

Written by: Dr Carmel Kent | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

As we emerge from the pandemic, are we at risk of hurtling back down the time-tunnel? Dr Carmel Kent asks what schools can do to ensure the lessons of the past 18 months are not lost...


"As long as you don't sit on a chair in our classes, you won't be able to study in our school."

It is the summer of 2021 and these were the words of a UK state school leader to a 14-year-old “school refuser”. Yes, it’s true that the school has been providing remote education to hundreds of students for the last 14 months. It is also the case that the school’s staff now know so much more about remote learning and about equity in education.

And yet, they still don’t see how they can support a student who is not able to put their proverbial bum on the classroom seat full-time.

Schools around the world have just gone through their steepest learning curve. They have learnt much about adaptability, resilience, equity and blended learning. Covid has enabled schools to fast-forward, as if in a time-tunnel, in a way we could not have imagined two years ago.

Yet, official figures show that there are more than 770,000 persistent absentees in England alone (DfE, 2020), and the tyranny of the “bums on seats” attitude continues to make their lives a daily hell, causing rising costs to our collapsing mental health system and making our society less inclusive, less resilient and more fragile.

We all reflected on the “new normal” as the pandemic continued and the weeks turned into months – and now, possibly, years. The disruption to the labour market has been unprecedented. Almost half of adults are said to be considering the benefits to their work/life balance and a career change, and almost three quarters want flexible, remote work options to remain (Microsoft, 2021). Working remotely has been shown to allow more efficient time management and communication. Adults are insisting on making their lives fit them better.

Don't our children deserve similar opportunities?

In an eight-month research project about the educational lessons learnt from Covid (EDUCATE, 2021), we reported on a disconnect between research, schools and policy-makers. Our report showed how this was preventing schools from using sound research and evidence to adapt to their new ways of working and from responding to the Covid crisis as quickly and effectively as they might have liked.

So much evidence has been collected about remote learning by academics and educationalists during the last year. While this did not produce any proof in support of prioritising Latin lessons or banning mobile phones – two pet projects of the now-former education secretary Gavin Williamson –we did learn much about the dedicated teachers, students, schools and parents who came up with new, creative and effective ways of teaching and learning and about educational needs that were being met for the first time.

Sadly, we also heard about the widening educational gap created by, among other reasons, accessibility to devices and connectivity and about a growing number of school avoiders (BBC ,2021).

We need to address these challenges and continue to embrace what we have learned from Covid. If we fail to do so we could, very quickly, be sucked back down the Covid time-tunnel as if the pandemic never happened.

So, what can schools do to ensure the lessons of the past 18 months are not lost? Here are a few ideas:

Audit: Make an audit of the technology available in school and at students and teachers’ homes. This will allow you to plan, source devices and tap into any relevant funds and schemes.

Shared experiences: Enable teachers to share their remote learning experience within and between schools. For example, did a flipped classroom work and for which students? Many schools took important lessons from Covid and recognised the possibilities technology offers to become more inclusive. We need to share the success stories and the failed experiments. The option to learn anytime and everywhere became a tangible reality, and offers teachers a wider space to navigate in. This could be a beginning of a learning journey. But it is a journey that must involve systemic experimentations and continuous collection of evidence on the efficacy of the various methods.

Lesson-planning: When developing new lesson plans, consider how these can be presented in a form to make them conducive to remote learning. For instance, could lessons be recorded for use in the future? Can we put more emphasis on useful skills such as time-management and self-regulation?

Inclusion: Find out to what extent was your school able to be more inclusive for some students during the lockdowns. Flag up those pupils who would benefit from an education outside of school and provide suitable adjustments. If you have a rigid attendance policy, consider whether this remains fit-for-purpose.

Family engagement: Re-acquaint school staff with families. Find out how their lives changed because of the pandemic. Did some families experience loss? Did some parents change their working arrangements?

Much was said about the educational challenges Covid presented, but we have not talked enough about how not to slip back and unlearn the lessons learned. Schools have newly acquired expertise and must be given the time to reflect on what worked well, to have access to sound evidence and to make sure they, and our children, continue to learn effectively.

Let’s hope the new secretary of state brings new ideas and possibilities. We need to move forward and not hurtle back down the time-tunnel.

  • Dr Carmel Kent is head of educational data science at EDUCATE Ventures Research, which runs an evidence-based accelerator programme for entrepreneurs and innovators working on educational technology products and services. Visit www.educateventures.com


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