Future proofing education

This article originally appeared in Leader magazine
Issue 116 | Autumn Term 2 2020

Caroline Sharp from the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER) provides an insight into schools’ recent experiences of providing distance and blended learning and their implications for future waves of Covid-19.

Covid-19 has caused severe disruption to schools, pupils and families, and schools have been forced to adapt to constantly changing guidance and circumstances. Everyone wants to get back to normal as soon as possible, but the continuing impact of the virus and the threat of further lockdowns is making this impossible, so what can school leaders do to mitigate further disruption to their pupils’ learning? 

Meeting the challenge of remote learning

NFER carried out two surveys of schools in May and July (see https://tinyurl.com/y4raym9v for details). The research found a relationship between schools’ activities and pupil engagement (measured by the proportion of pupils completing set work), which may provide a useful checklist for the future. In terms of remote learning, higher pupil engagement was associated with: 

  • pupils and teachers having sufficient IT (including access to suitable equipment and internet connectivity) 

  • schools using a virtual learning environment (VLE) to communicate with pupils and parents, rather than the school website 

  • setting work that involved consolidating previous learning or revising (although this may be less appropriate earlier in the school year) 

  • learning through online conversations between pupils and teachers

  • using telephone/video calls to communicate with pupils and parents

  • teachers feeling that they were receiving good support from their schools

We asked teachers what would help them provide remote learning more effectively in the future. A key area was a demand for better provision of IT equipment and facilities, both for pupils and teachers. Teachers estimated that about a quarter of their pupils did not have the IT they needed to learn at home in May, and it was disappointing to see that the situation was the same in July. A third of teachers provided their own IT to support pupils’ remote learning, and three-fifths either supplied their own audio-visual (recording) equipment or had no access to such resources. 

Teachers said they needed training and development, especially in video recording and editing, using VLEs and effective remote learning strategies. The government’s decision to make EdTech Demonstrator webinars and support widely available will help to ensure staff have access to other schools’ expertise.

Staffing blended learning

In June and July when certain year groups were prioritised for return, it proved difficult for schools to cater equally for pupils at home and onsite. Many schools focused their staffing disproportionately on pupils attending school. This suggests that leaders need to balance the needs of pupils learning in-school and remotely (whether individuals, classes or year groups). Some of our survey respondents said that using technology and deploying support staff to support remote learning had helped them to manage the additional workload, but we know that this is especially challenging at a time when staffing levels are being affected by the need to self-isolate and secondary leaders estimate their costs have risen by about 10% on average, due to Covid-19. 

Teaching during the ‘new normal’

Although most schools are open to all pupils, their education is still being affected. In July, 74% of teachers said they were unable to teach to their normal standard due to the restrictions of social distancing. 

The continuing need to reduce social mixing means that teachers are adjusting to pupils sitting in front-facing rows, being unable to walk around the classroom and having fewer opportunities for small group work or movement around the school. 

Such restrictions could lead to more didactic teaching with less differentiation or variety. This issue could benefit from some rapid research to identify practical solutions, so school leaders are able to support teachers in reducing the barriers to effective pedagogy. 

Why parental engagement really matters 

Parental engagement makes an important contribution to pupil engagement, especially when pupils are learning at home. During lockdown, teachers reported that just over half (55%) of their pupils’ parents were engaged with their children’s learning. We found a link between teachers estimating that their pupils were more behind in curriculum learning and saying that fewer parents were engaged. The Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) has issued guidance for schools on how to encourage parental engagement – see https://tinyurl.com/y6rbl8he

Parents are also critical in ensuring their children attend school. Some schools experienced high proportions of parents keeping their children at home in the days and weeks before the March lockdown. Daily attendance for eligible pupils in Reception, Year 1 and Year 6 stabilised at about 40% in July, while attendance for eligible secondary pupils in Year 10 and Year 12 was about 13%. Although this improved markedly in the new school year, there is a danger that, if the rate of infection begins to rise, parents will keep their children off school again. The government and schools will need to keep reassuring parents that the benefits of attending school far outweigh the risk of contracting the virus. 

Addressing disadvantage

Covid-19 has had a particularly negative effect on pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds. Our research found that they were significantly less likely than those from more advantaged backgrounds to be engaged in remote learning or to attend school when invited back in the summer term, and significantly more likely to be in need of intensive catch-up support. This is why we recommended more government funding should be targeted at disadvantaged pupils and schools serving them, as they have been particularly hard hit by the pandemic. If schools have to close again, we hope schools and local authorities will use their discretion to extend the previous definition of vulnerable children and consider allowing access to all those who need better IT connectivity and workspace, so that disadvantaged pupils can continue to receive full-time education without the risk of being stigmatised. 

The process of recovery will be a long game rather than a quick fix. Now is the time to use the lessons we have learned to plan for the future, both during and after the threat of Covid-19.

NFER Direct

Keep up to date with the latest NFER research and blogs by signing up to NFER Direct – a free monthly newsletter: www.nfer.ac.uk/nferdirect

Caroline Sharp
Research Director at the National Foundation for Educational Research

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