Professor Anne Green discusses the effect COVID-19 is having on education and skills, including the many challenges now faced, but also that Coronavirus provides an opportunity to reshape and reform the sector.
School closures and accentuated inequalities in educational achievement
Despite a move to online learning, there is considerable concern about school closures leading to slower progress or a reduction in learning outcomes of students. This is an issue not only in England and the UK but internationally and has been an issue in past disease outbreaks around the world. The underlying problems here are the reduction in the availability of education services due to school closures and a lack of educational materials to use at home (especially for those in households facing financial hardship or where there is less family support for learning). There are also concerns in some quarters that there will be a reduction in the utilisation of schools (at least in the early stage after reopening) due to fear of school return/ emotional stress induced by the pandemic. There is limited evidence on mitigation measures – including how distance learning/use of digital technologies impact on learning.
During wars and natural disasters attempts have been made to keep schools open as much as possible. A recent article in the Economist has highlighted how school learning time lost due to closures of schools during strikes and weather-related events has implications for educational achievement and may mean students are less likely to complete higher education. The evidence points to long-term implications of short-term closures. Clearly, digitalisation enables ever more learning to take place online, but there are variations between students in access to technology and suitable study environments, as well as parental support. OECD analysis of 2018 PISA data reported by the Centre for Economic Performance report on the implications for the educational achievement of COVID-19 school shutdowns shows that 40% of economically disadvantaged students in UK secondary schools had access to online learning platforms, compared with 70% of more advantaged peers.
There are particular concerns about skills development that is less easy to replicate online, including the development of social and emotional skills, critical thinking and perseverance, that are important for educational success and that are also prized by employers. Again, evidence suggests that lockdown accentuates existing inequalities. Also on the theme of inequalities and the social outcomes of education, in the context of COVID-19, there is evidence from the OECD that healthy habits during confinement – including keeping in touch with friends and family – increase with educational attainment, while the incidence of depression decreases.
Research is underway to explore the educational implications of the lockdown in Birmingham (and elsewhere). The Birmingham Education and COVID-19 initiative are working on this topic with Birmingham City Council and other stakeholders. The research is focusing particularly on impacts on disadvantaged groups, those facing transitions in the education system and from school to Further Education (FE) and Higher Education (HE), implications for learning for students lacking/with poor access to technology, and institutional and systems leadership issues.
The Education Policy Institute has formulated policy proposals to check the widening of inequalities and to help stop the existing attainment gap widening further. The proposals include:
- making summer holiday provision available for all children;
- increasing pupil premiums for one year in order to provide extra support for students facing transitions or national examinations;
- extending vocational courses for 16-19 year olds for an additional year
- greater flexibility for apprenticeships – in the context of temporary cessation of some schemes;
- extending maintenance loans; and
- greater support for adult reskilling – including relaxing eligibility rules for the Adult Education Budget, including allowing those aged over 24 to take a second Level 3 qualification.
Universities face particular challenges – including:
- lost income from accommodation, catering and conferences (affecting all universities)
- a significant fall in international students; and
- a possible rise in deferrals of domestic students.
The COVID-19 pandemic also brings with it opportunities. There may be some benefits if a switch to online education encourages greater interaction with technology and more efficient learning and teaching practice, but these benefits are as yet unknown and unquantifiable. Certainly, disruption to the education and training system brings opportunities to expand digital offerings. Ideally, such new offerings need to be based on what has worked well, and for whom, using digital tools. There are options also for innovative, digital pedagogical approaches such as simulators, augmented/virtual reality, or artificial intelligence. A vibrant EdTech industry might emerge.
More radically, in a Policy Exchange paper David Goodhart proposes that the COVID-19 crisis provides an opportunity to improve the alignment of the education and training system with economic and social needs in the UK. One of his proposals is that a new ‘Opportunity Grant’ of at least £3,000 should be made available for training or retraining. He proposes that these grants would be drawn down by training providers or FE colleges for individuals on employment-relevant courses from approved providers, with information on likely employment opportunities after a course is completed and on the average pay for people with that skill being used to help individuals navigate training choices and the labour market.
Other proposals include suspending the apprenticeship levy for new entrants and replacing it with a radically simplified model focused on school leavers (who are particularly hard hit by the COVID-19 crisis) and young people up to the age of 24, with Government and employers splitting the full cost on a 50:50 basis. He also suggests that the COVID-19 crisis provides an opportunity to promote greater collaboration between the FE and HE sectors.
There is also an opportunity for the HE sector to promote and give greater impetus to the idea of lifelong learning. Goodhart proposes that as a one-off measure for one year the Government could consider making all courses provided by British universities free to any citizen aged 25 years and over.
Overall, the COVID-19 crisis points to the need to build system resilience to reinforce the adaptability and responsiveness of education and training systems. There is a question of how investment needed will be financed and the skills for effective delivery developed, but the response to moves to online learning over the last two months have pointed to what can be achieved in a crisis. An OECD analysis of the impact of the COVID-19 crisis on vocational education and training (VET) systems and of the responses in VET systems highlights how different countries have made increasing use of online and virtual platforms; training breaks or extensions; wage support for apprentice retention; flexible skills assessment and awarding of qualifications, including recognition of prior learning, retraining of redeployed workers; and closer engagement with employers and trade unions (locally and nationally), so highlighting the importance of partnership working.
Education Policy Institute (2020) Preventing the disadvantage gap from increasing during and after the Covid-19 pandemic.
Eyles A, Gibbons S and Montebruno P (2020) Covid-19 school shutdowns: what will they do to our children’s education, Centre for Economic Performance, LSE.
Goodhart D (2020) A training opportunity in the crisis: How the Covid-19 response can help sort out Britain’s training mess, Policy Exchange.
Hallgarten J (2020) Evidence on efforts to mitigate the negative educational impact of past disease outbreaks, K4D, UK Department for International Development.
OECD (2020) What role might the social outcomes of education play during the COVID-19 lockdown?, Education Indicators in Focus, No. 75, OECD Publishing, Paris,
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The views expressed in this analysis post are those of the authors and not necessarily those of City-REDI / WM REDI or the University of Birmingham