The months ahead: What must education look like?

Written by: Dr Mary Bousted | Published:
Dr Mary Bousted, joint general secretary, National Education Union

As the coronavirus lockdown continues, some very real questions about what education must look like in the months to come need addressing, says Dr Mary Bousted

These are extraordinary times. The Covid-19 crisis has upended all our certainties about schools and education. Students have been at home for weeks. Some have parents who can support them in their learning, with access to the internet and to online resources. Their homes will be well supplied with books and reading material. They will have enough to eat.

Other students are less fortunate. They live in homes where it is far more difficult to support continued engagement with learning, their homes are over-crowded, their parents are stressed because of the financial insecurity that lockdown has exacerbated. Some will have gone hungry.

And with 700,000 of 11 to 18-year-olds having no internet access at home from a computer or tablet, according to the Office of National Statistics (2019), their ability to access the much-vaunted possibilities of online learning are remote indeed.

It should be clear to all, therefore, that when schools do partially re-open, they cannot return to education as it has been. It should be understood that the attainment gap for disadvantaged students – currently at 19.3 months for 16-year-olds (Andrews et al, 2017) – will have grown.

Our schools and colleges will have to adapt to the new normal, because the pandemic is likely to come in waves, and what this wave has shown is that there are too many fragilities in our education system.

So, here are a few points to consider when thinking about what needs to change and to happen from now on…

Schools and colleges must be supported to provide a national programme of support to all students, all of whom have been through traumatic times, focusing on their social and emotional health and wellbeing.

An enormous effort will be needed to identify the learning gaps in the case of each individual, and what additional support will be required to help them to catch up as quickly as possible, without this becoming an unmanageable ordeal for all concerned.

The syllabus content of GCSE and A level courses to be examined in 2021 will have to be slimmed down because a substantial amount of formal teaching time has been missed, and because students will have had very unequal chances to access learning at home.

It is just not possible to “catch up” the curriculum that will have been missed. The cohort who are taking their exams next summer will have had a maximum of 3.5 terms of teaching – with a real possibility of some disruption in the autumn term this year as well.

The exams need to be very different to 2019, if they are to happen at all. There are various options – including a reduced number of exams per subject, with a greater choice of questions.

Teacher assessment, which will play such a fundamental role in the allocation of grades at GCSE and A level this year, has been proved to be a valid and reliable method of assessment for the purposes of the award of grades. It should play a key role in next year’s grades too, with a national programme of teacher support to enable teachers to assess their pupils’ standards confidently.

But we should not re-open to a larger percentage of the student population until it is as safe as possible to do so.

Much has been said in the media of schools providing the way out of the lockdown because young people do not get very ill when they catch the virus. Such loose talk costs lives. Because teachers and support staff, and all the adults who work in school can get very ill with the virus, some, fatally so.

So, in addition to PPE in schools, before any re-opening, large scale testing for the virus must be in place, as well as contact-tracing to suppress the spread of the virus.

Teachers and leaders want to play their part in bringing the country back to the new normal, but they must be supported in so doing, cared for and valued by the society who owes them so much.

Dr Mary Bousted is joint general secretary of the National Education Union.

Further information

  • Andrews et al: Closing the gap? Trends in educational attainment and disadvantage, Education Policy Institute, August 2017:
  • ONS: Exploring the UK’s digital divide, last updated March 2019:


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