Lessons from the COVID-19 crisis: recommendations for primary education from an ESRC-funded project based at the UCL Institute of Education

We welcome the Scottish government’s public consultation on ideas for getting through and out of the pandemic. In this submission we emphasize the value for education in listening to the experience of those dealing with the varied effects of COVID in their own schools and local communities.

This submission is by team of researchers at the UCL Institute of Education. Our research project has been tracking primary school teachers’ responses to the COVID pandemic in England since shortly after lockdown. Our data, in many respects, contrasts with the unfolding media narrative about the impacts of COVID on education and what should be done about it. We strongly believe that though our research was carried out in the English context, our findings and the emerging recommendations are also of value in Scotland. Here are some of the main messages we heard.

Lesson 1: COVID has hit disadvantaged communities and the schools that work with them hardest: funding should recognise this.
The COVID crisis has revealed very clearly how much material poverty impacts on children growing up. In the most deprived areas, schools have acted as crucial support hubs for children and their families during the crisis. Our survey showed that during lockdown 78% of teachers working in the most deprived areas made their highest priority ‘checking how families are coping in terms of mental health, welfare, food’ (Moss et al, 2020). Our respondents knew many children in our most disadvantaged communities would go hungry if schools did not intervene to help families access food. They knew that many children were without access to the internet, a private space to study at home or outside space, all elements that might make a difference to their experience during lockdown. Teachers knew that home itself might not be a safe environment and worried about families they thought were struggling with mental health issues. They remembered these incidents in interview: ‘it was things like one girl saying ‘I just need to get out of the house. I just need to see people’.

Teachers’ priorities as schools begin to reopen are for children’s well-being and for schools to provide a safe return to settled routines. School leaders and teachers recognise that wellbeing and purposeful learning are intertwined. Schools’ normal ways of working ensure these two elements interact: learning routines support pupil wellbeing and pupil wellbeing acts as a necessary foundation for learning. As one respondent commented ‘Teachers will need to address children’s mental health issues and reintroduce children to school … there will need to be work on nurturing and bringing children back together as a class. This must be the priority - not whether they are meeting national end of year expectations!’

The pro-active role schools play in restoring pupil health and well-being, as well as ensuring that children’s learning is maintained, should underpin schools’ plans for managing a return to full education. Policies and funding for schools post-crisis should support schools’ duty of care as well as their duty to teach, ensuring those schools working with our poorest communities have the resources they need and are well placed to network with other support services locally.

Lesson 2: The impacts of COVID on pupils’ learning will be varied.
Because pupils’ experiences during the pandemic have varied so tremendously, there can be no “one size fits all” system of recovery. Some children will have been able to continue learning at home, especially if their home environment gives them easy access to technology, toys, books, and space. But some of our more vulnerable children living in poverty may lack those facilities and indeed have had little access to safe spaces in which to play and learn. Parents may have been less able to help with work sent home from school. Some will have been under considerable pressure, relying on food banks, struggling with long working hours, caring responsibilities or finding themselves jobless. Schools will have different priorities depending upon how the COVID crisis has played out in their local community. Understanding precisely how a period of disruption will have impacted on different children will take time: hurrying to identify gaps too soon may lead to miscalculations.

All teachers have been rightly concerned about the impact of this period of disruption on children’s learning. Our survey data show 71% of teachers working in the most deprived areas thought lockdown would have a significant impact on their pupils’ academic progression, compared to 45% in the least deprived. Only a minority thought home schooling was working well: 9% of those working in the most deprived areas compared to 33% working in the least deprived areas. How to deal with this disruption to learning is a challenge which all schools will have to address.

Our review of relevant literature (Harmey and Moss, 2020) and research studies suggests that the most probable outcome of a period of learning disruption is an increase in the range of learning needs within each class (Kuhfeld et al, 2020). High-quality mixed attainment teaching may well be the best first response. This allows teachers to re-engage children right the way across the attainment spectrum in purposeful learning. It also mitigates the risks of targeting resources too soon (See Hodgen et al, 2020). Some children may have gained during lockdown, other apparent learning gaps may be transitory rather than long lasting. Only a minority of children may require longer term support.

Our interviewees stressed the importance of careful, teacher-led, formative assessment as one of the most important resources teachers can draw on in planning their curriculum. It has a particular value in reconnecting children to learning during a period of uncertainty. As one senior leader commented, ‘I just think “What do teachers normally do?” They have a sense of what they want children to learn. They work out what their gaps are and then they do their best to fill in the gaps through whatever version of pedagogy they think is most effective’. Teacher-led diagnostic and formative assessment can help meet both the wellbeing and learning needs of pupils.

Lesson 3: Maintaining learning through further periods of disruption requires careful and dialogic decision making
To ensure that learning experiences for children in and out of school are meaningful, engaging and sustainable under current conditions is not a simple task. It requires enormous energy and resourcefulness on the part of teachers, particularly those working with our most disadvantaged communities. When facing periods of unplanned and unexpected closure, schools should be encouraged to make choices that are responsive to their community’s needs and reflect dialogue with both families and other schools.

Schools and teachers have had to learn fast about how best to support learning through periods of disruption and under different conditions. During lockdown, many of our respondents said they had become more aware of the difficulties families face in sustaining children’s learning at home, sometimes under very challenging conditions. Challenges for parents might come from the logistics – how to keep a particular age range of siblings purposefully occupied at the same time; or from the absence of necessary resources – maybe digital technology or a sufficient supply of children’s books; or the necessary competence and expertise to support unfamiliar school tasks. In response, teachers and heads spoke of helping parents and families identify and adapt learning routines that worked for them and that they could sustain. As one teacher noted ‘the last thing I wanted to do was make a parent feel ‘I can’t cope’ because that’s what they were doing. That’s not right’. Most of our interviewees tried to achieve a careful balance between supplying enough support or guidance to reassure parents and not overwhelming them by making demands with which they were unable to cope, given restrictions on their time or familiarity with the subject matter. Our respondents stressed that their experiences over lockdown of working closely with families, considering what does and doesn’t work for certain family set-ups, was of value in informing future planning. It also reinforced the crucial nature of working collaboratively with both families and other teachers.

We know that many families lack sufficient devices or adequate internet access to make remote online learning possible. Closing the technological gap is unlikely to prove straightforward. In a packed autumn term, with schools struggling with a range of other pressing priorities, finding time to review how digital learning can best translate into purposeful home-learning may be especially difficult for schools coming to this task for the first time. In these circumstances, supplying families with high quality hard copy resources that do not require online access may be as important (Moss et al, 2020). The route schools take to support home learning in their communities should be respected: opportunities to prioritise and resource professional development that will enhance curriculum planning in the light of local needs should be encouraged (International Literacy Centre, 2020a).

Why the contribution is important

COVID has led to a prolonged period of disruption in children’s learning, with uneven impacts in different communities. Further disruption is possible. Listening to teachers’ experience of grappling with difficult and novel dilemmas is a crucial part of being able to manage the crisis well. A key characteristic of a resilient primary education system is that it will be committed to finding collaborative ways of working through the crisis, in recognition that each local context may well pose teachers with different challenges.

The COVID crisis has laid bare some of the deep inequalities in our society and the significant impacts of poverty on education. In the short term we consider that schools are best placed to devise locally appropriate plans for recovery, following assessment of their pupils’ needs. Such assessments should take into account welfare and well-being as well as education. We recommend that schools are given considerable freedom to choose how to spend any additional monies governments commit to setting education right.

In England, COVID has revealed just how far current governance structures in education are geared to high level direction from central government involving limited consultation or dialogue with the sector. Such a centralised approach to decision-making has not worked well during the crisis. Where they exist, strong local support structures have played an important part in facilitating good local decision-making and Local Authorities and Multi Academy Trusts have been important in bringing schools together. As one respondent said:
‘We got incredible support from the local authority, incredible support from them […] Huge amounts of regular feedback and updates, they were really supportive in terms of risk assessments, template letters. They were really helpful.’ But such good local support was not forthcoming everywhere. This problem may be particularly acute in England, and yet the wider message of the dangers of an overly centralised system, and the importance of more consistent and resilient local structures, is of equal relevance to Scotland. Primary education across the UK needs to rebuild more durable, more deliberative and more transparent connections between the various bodies holding responsibility for the management of education at different levels. Policy decisions and national guidance related to primary education should develop from a much fuller, evolving, collaborate and collegiate awareness of the every-day realities of school and community life.

In some parts of the research community attention has fallen on calculating system-wide gaps in attainment. Although such modelling may be intended to inform decisions about school funding, such data is far less useful for schools themselves. The approaches adopted may exaggerate losses, either by calculating the difference that school closure makes in terms of time lost, as if all time spent in school was time spent learning; by ignoring the potential for learning gains through a range of opportunities that may characterize informal learning at home; and by focusing too closely on losses calculated immediately after school re-opening, without the capacity to calculate the difference a return to normal school routines will make from there. (Most studies on learning loss look at two time points only, immediately before and immediately after a period of planned closure.) From our systematic review of the literatures on learning loss and learning disruption we concluded that the latter literature is more relevant to education during COVID (Harmey and Moss, 2020). Events are more comparable and the focus is on strategies that have aided recovery, something the learning loss literature does not consider. Indeed, in the context of a high-stakes accountability regime of the kind in operation in England, what are speculative calculations of the long-term impacts of the COVID pandemic on individual pupils can create huge pressure on schools to focus their recovery plans on meeting test targets. This may prove counterproductive by pushing schools into teaching to the test and targeting catch-up programmes inappropriately (International Literacy Centre, 2020b,c,d).

Summary & recommendations
Listening to teachers’ experience of the COVID crisis so far is important because it allows us all to reflect on how we can use this experience to rebuild a fairer, more collaborative and more resilient primary education system going forward. Our research has produced two submissions to the UK government with recommendations for what should happen next (International Literacy Centre, 2020a; Harmey and Moss, 2020) and a series of briefing notes for primary schools in England, designed to help them steer their way through the crisis in the context of the English system (International Literacy Centre, 2020b, 2020c, 2020d). Below we set out some of the main recommendations we think may be of value in Scotland

1. Policies and funding for schools post-crisis should support schools’ duty of care as well as their duty to teach, ensuring those schools working with our poorest communities have the resources they need and are well placed to network with other support services locally.
2. A period of settling in will be beneficial for teachers and for children, as new routines are established and children adapt back to the classroom setting. Schools will benefit from having more discretion over how they support children’s learning in this return to school period, including in what time frame. Understanding precisely how a period of disruption will have impacted on different children will take time. A settling in period will help schools more accurately assess how to meet their pupils’ specific needs.
3. When facing periods of unplanned and unexpected closure, schools should be expected and encouraged to make locally-responsive plans that are attuned to their community’s needs. Schools should:
a. plan for a range of activities to ensure that learning experiences for children in and out of school are meaningful, engaging and sustainable under current conditions;
b. seek opportunities to develop staff expertise by grappling with these challenges together, in the knowledge that there are few ready-made answers;
c. share ideas with other schools.
4. Continue to develop durable, more deliberative and more transparent ways of connecting all those involved in managing the many different aspects of education at this uncertain time. Strong, locally responsive networks will allow policy decisions and national guidance to develop from a full awareness of what the every-day yet diverse realities of school life during the pandemic are.
Harmey, S. and Moss, G. (2020) Learning Loss versus Learning Disruption: Written evidence submitted to the Education Select Committee Inquiry into the impact of COVID-19. London: UCL Institute of Education.

Hodgen, J, Taylor, B, Jacques, L, Tereshchenko, A, Kwok, R, Cockerill, M (2020). Remote mathematics teaching during COVID-19: intentions, practices and equity. London: UCL Institute of Education. Available from: https://discovery.ucl.ac.uk/id/eprint/10110311/1/2020%20Remote%20mathematics%20teaching%20during%20Covid-19.pdf

Kuhfeld, M., Soland, J., Tarasawa, B., Johnson, A., Ruzek, E and Liu, J. (2020).
Projecting the potential impacts of COVID-19 school closures on academic achievement. (EdWorkingPaper: 20-226). Annenberg Institute at Brown University:

International Literacy Centre (2020a) 'Written evidence submitted to the Education Select Committee Inquiry into the impact of COVID-19 on education and children’s services.’ (CIE0387) London. Available at: https://committees.parliament.uk/writtenevidence/9081/pdf/

International Literacy Centre (2020b). ‘Briefing Note 1: Primary Assessment and COVID’. Available at: https://www.ucl.ac.uk/ioe/research-projects/2020/oct/primary-assessment-turbulent-times

International Literacy Centre (2020c). ‘Briefing Note 2: Learning After Lockdown’ Available at: https://www.ucl.ac.uk/ioe/research-projects/2020/oct/learning-after-lockdown

International Literacy Centre (2020d). ‘Briefing Note 3: Resetting Educational Priorities in Challenging Times.’ Available at https://www.ucl.ac.uk/ioe/research-projects/2020/oct/resetting-educational-priorities-challenging-times

Moss, G., Allen, R., Bradbury, A., Duncan, S., Harmey, S., & Levy, R. (2020). Primary teachers’ experience of the COVID-19 lockdown – Eight key messages for policymakers going forward. London: UCL Institute of Education. https://discovery.ucl.ac.uk/id/eprint/10103669/1/Moss_DCDT%20Report%201%20Final.pdf

1. A duty of care and a duty to teach: educational priorities in response to the Covid-19 crisis. Funder: ESRC/UKRI: Ref ES/V00414X/1. Project team: PI: Gemma Moss. Co-Is: Alice Bradbury, Sam Duncan, Sinead Harmey, Rachael Levy. Project findings are based on a survey of 1,653 primary school teachers in England, conducted through Teacher Tapp between May 27-29th 2020; a follow up survey conducted by ILC between July 3-31st 2020; in-depth interviews with teachers, head teachers and system leaders; documentary evidence of the wider public debate on education and COVID-19; and a rapid evidence assessment of the relevant literature.

by InternationalLiteracyCentre on October 10, 2020 at 10:10AM

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