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Critical reflections on the pandemic: what next for school education and research?

In this post, we highlight key findings relating to school teachers and leaders from a university report on the impact of the pandemic on education. We also ask what this might mean for education research in the coming months and years.

About the research and report

In June, a team from the Moray House School of Education and Sport, led by Professor Gillian McCluskey, published their report, The Delivery of Education and Certification. It was commissioned by the Scottish COVID-19 Inquiry as introductory scoping research to assist the inquiry with its process. Whilst there is, globally, a lack of comparable data – and no longitudinal (5+ years) data as yet – the research team were able to make a comprehensive analysis of relevant national and international literature. This included qualitative and quantitative empirical research, legislation, policy and grey literature published since 2020 that could be analysed in order to build a valid picture of the impact of the pandemic.

The report highlights many known key issues, including: the mental and physical health of students in schools, colleges and universities; disproportionate negative impacts on young people experiencing poverty, those with additional support needs, and some black and minority ethnic young people; and concerns over the lack of access to current and future youth work services.

The report also recommends that further investigation is made into the approaches to student assessment during the pandemic; whether there are any lasting effects; and the current overall system of curriculum, assessments, qualification, and accreditation.

Decision-making and the role of school heads

The multi-dimensional role of school heads appears to have become even more complex during the pandemic, not just during lockdown restrictions but also on the re-opening of school sites. What might be termed the ‘administration leadership’ part of the role suddenly featured new rules and paperwork on sanitation, as well as limitations on the numbers of staff and pupils in certain areas. School heads’ leadership of ‘human resources’ included more sporadic staff presence; increased anxiety of teachers and parents; and a rising concern for vulnerable families. ‘Crisis management’ became part of the job: responding rapidly and round the clock to changing advice and requests from local authorities, teacher unions, and government agencies. Leading ‘public relations’ on behalf of their schools – and, one might say, the profession at large – involved reassuring the scrutinising media and general public that their children were still being nurtured and cared for.

These findings are consistent with those in many other countries, meaning that Scotland’s school heads were not alone in the numerous challenges that they faced. Decision-making had to be almost instantaneous but with as much empathy for staff, students, and families as possible. The report implies that the anxiety caused by uncertainty surrounding exam cancellations, and the challenges and criticisms of the Alternative Certification Model (adopted in 2020 and 2021), were equally tough on school heads, who had to manage the new processes whilst knowing that they would be judged on the outcomes.

Continuity and creativity in teaching

Providing continuity in teaching and learning during lockdown restrictions and the re-opening of sites created numerous challenges in countries around the world, and Scotland was no different. Consistent with findings across Europe and other continents, teaching and learning was initially much easier where both teachers and students were confident using digital tools; and where students were relatively autonomous learners, with a suitable environment in which to work.

Whilst the research acknowledges the many difficulties and negative impacts – supporting children with learning difficulties; variation in family support and home conditions; lack of practical tasks in learning – the report is also careful to highlight reported positives: more opportunities to play and learn whilst free from the pressure of standardised testing; and protected from some of the social anxieties of schooling. The report is also consistent with global perspectives that the pandemic did not so much bring new issues into school education, but rather highlighted and exacerbated existing societal problems.

International literature has considered the ways in which teachers, including student teachers, were required to be more imaginative with lesson design, drawing on a range of online resources, and spending the precious little time together with students in the most constructive way. Whilst this report does not consider pedagogical approaches in detail, it implies that further reflection is necessary in terms of what Scotland’s teachers feel are currently the most important elements of their in-school practice, considering what teachers and pupils have experienced in recent years. Once these are identified, the next question is How can teachers be effectively supported?

Working conditions and culture of the profession

Perhaps the most troubling of the report’s findings relating to school teachers and leaders concern their working conditions and culture.

Also consistent with other countries, the education profession in Scotland suffered with increased staff workload and staff absences leading to staff shortages. Negative impacts on staff wellbeing and morale from these working conditions were compounded by anxiety for their pupils’ learning and well-being, and by concerns for their own isolated families. The report notes that, in 2020, 89% of all primary teachers and 64% of all secondary teachers were women; therefore, the “burden” of the pandemic impacts in education was mostly carried by women and this merits further consideration.

Similar to the mixed praise and critique of health services, teachers and school leaders were also subjected to a regular interrogation through news and social media. They were publicly applauded but also labelled as lazy and incompetent, whilst research evidence points to staff working far beyond their normal workload and with a strong commitment to a duty of care. This has created a dangerous culture for the profession, where exhausted staff, lacking in confidence, are allowed to be harassed and undermined by the public they serve.

Implications for future research

And so, on the basis of this report, what might education research find as its next useful focus?

Is studying the long-term effects really worth the effort? Certainly, it will be a focus for many researchers over the coming years and eventually we will have longitudinal data. As the report concedes, the situation had already changed so fast in the first three months, that the research context was very different. If we also take the point that the pandemic highlighted existing issues, would a longitudinal study of ‘COVID effects’ be diluted by the very similar everyday issues? On the other hand, the changes were so dramatic that they are surely impossible to ignore or forget, even with a kind of ‘pandemic fatigue’ in society. There is also perhaps a need for more clever stone-turning, in order to unearth the, as yet, unseen or misunderstood impacts.

Another consideration for research is the recording of individual and collective memory. Whilst recall bias and distortion of remembered events can be problematic in research, the time may be now as an opportunity to gather as many stories from the field as possible. The question, then, is for what purpose? Giving voice to professionals and valuing their experiences may make a simple but important contribution to demonstrating public respect for the profession. Framing the stories as “journeys emerging out from the pandemic” may also offer an opportunity for reflection on recent shifts in their perceived roles, priorities and pedagogical approaches in a more positive, forward-looking way.

Under constant debate is the role that schools should – or can realistically – have going forward. They cannot respond alone and will depend on, and usefully contribute to, various local and national partnerships. Research projects with a range of participating stakeholders at different levels of the education system may help to elevate examples of where such partnerships are particularly effective and where there remain serious gaps and tensions. This includes the voices of the young students themselves who could be engaged as co-investigators.

Benefits may also be found from interdisciplinary collaborations between researchers, in order to better appreciate and understand the broad societal factors at play, such as the cost of living, and to understand the impact of pandemic experiences from a life-long learning perspective. These collaborations may also be international; not necessarily to directly compare or judge experiences and measures with other countries, but to help to understand the Scottish context in different lights.

Lastly, much of the literature on the impact of pandemic restrictions on education have noted the reaction of the system to policy measures that were rapidly-developed. Now that a little more time is on our side, can more research, like this report, feed effectively into future policies?

The University of Edinburgh research Team:

Prof Gillean McCluskey

Dr Zoè Robertson

Rosa Murray

Dr Ian Fyfe

with thanks to Dr Hannah Grainger-Clemson for preparing the blog post


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