Recovery won't be easy – but we must succeed

Written by: Deborah Lawson | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

How must education build back better following the pandemic? Deborah Lawson says that what is needed might not be easy and it won’t be convenient – but we must act all the same, beginning perhaps with our outdated assessment system

At the time of writing, almost one in four adults in the UK have been vaccinated, and the clamour is rising to end lockdown. But we must be cautious. To quote Churchill: "This is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning."

What can we learn?

Now, more than ever, is a time to look back as well as forwards and to consider what we have learnt over the past year. Were there any surprises? Which parts of our education system were able to withstand the storm of Covid-19, which failed and need reform, and how on earth will we achieve this?

Without a doubt, there is a real need to praise the quick learning and adaptability of teachers and support staff in the switch to remote learning. Although there were many excellent teaching resources created and provided during the first lockdown, and thousands of children have been able to learn because of the continuing supply of work throughout periods of social isolation, it was not until this year that remote teaching and learning really took off.

We know that it is proving successful because more than 13,000 letters from parents praising schools and the quality of remote learning have been received by Ofsted. And Oak National Academy and other online learning sites have been hugely welcome, providing pre-recorded lessons, quizzes and assessment to support learning and ease teacher overload.

But children learn in different ways, and remote learning has not been effective for all. We know that the attainment gap has increased, likely exacerbated by the digital divide. We know that rural areas with poor broadband have learned in different ways to those in the suburbs, and in the inner cities there have been difficulties in consistently engaging with all learners all of the time – especially those who might have most needed it. And what about those who wanted to but could not engage – such as learners with caring responsibilities?

Every child in the world will have experienced the pandemic differently. Even in one school there will have been widespread differences in children’s experiences, and this means that there can be no one-size-fits-all approach.

Reassuringly, I had the opportunity recently to hear education recovery commissioner Sir Kevan Collins speak about recovery. He was clear that this would begin with teachers listening to their pupils to identify their needs, and confirmed that, before we can do anything, we must engage with the children to understand where they are at.

What’s the plan?

Once we have begun to engage with the children, we need to bring together people – school staff, tutors, parents and families, healthcare and mental health professionals – and create properly resourced and funded schemes to support the children where they are at. This should be innovative and embrace online and remote resources as well as make use of existing resources.

We can look at how online learning and tutoring can form part of the resources for academic recovery, but others will have forgotten how to play and socialise so might need play support.

Some will need emotional and behaviour support and might benefit from counselling, or be anxious about being in a group again and need mental health services to help them to overcome their fears.

With the right support, they will recover quickly, as children often do, but it must be the right support. What we must not do is waste this opportunity to examine the system to make it right for the children of today and tomorrow.

How will we do it?

Summer schools and tutoring schemes are easily understood concepts and have broad public interest, but perhaps they are just that – easy and convenient? What is needed might not be easy, and it won’t be convenient. Whatever it is, schools need flexibility to meet the needs of their learners, whatever parameters are set. And it needs to be engaging, hooking in learners, their parents and carers, and the wider local community.

We could begin with reforming the assessment and accountability regimes across all phases. No other country in Europe tests at 16 when compulsory schooling continues to 18, so why do we? And how does this benefit the learners when one in five children in England fail to achieve five good GCSEs, meaning 20 per cent are labelled as “failures” at 16?

As Kenneth Baker, founder of the national curriculum back in 1988, recently said: “The curriculum feels outdated. We need a new focus on skills for the 21st century, coding and computing, design, drama and creativity activities, or we are impoverishing children’s minds.”

So, let’s consider when and how to formally assess and certificate achievement. Should we follow a three-year “upper secondary” course, as think-tank EDSK recently suggested? Do we need a proper multi-disciplinary baccalaureate?

Whatever we rebuild needs to be centred around the child, supporting their wellbeing and encouraging research, team-working and sharing of ideas, developing the skills and abilities to support all learning in all subjects – not just amassing a quantum of knowledge. It needs to prepare them for further study, for lifelong learning and for jobs that we cannot yet imagine, and we need to do this now.

To achieve this, we need to build on what we have learnt during the past year – we need to recognise that our terminal exams-based system is not working and reintroduce modular assessment and other non-exam assessment as well. We need a robust and extensive IT infrastructure for the whole of the UK so that we can bridge the digital divide with access to high-quality online resources for everyone. We can recover “lost learning” and deliver homework that won’t worsen workload.

This will come at great cost to the government and to schools. It will require huge investment in time and money and staffing and this will be no quick fix – but our children are worth it.

  • Deborah Lawson is assistant general secretary of Community Union, Voice Section. Read her previous articles for SecEd, via


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