Can we build a more inclusive education system as part of our recovery from the pandemic?

This opinion piece is part of Reinventing Schools for the Future and was originally published on Nesta, a global innovation foundation.

For so long in education, reliance on rigid testing methods has led to an overemphasis on academic achievement at the expense of our children’s wellbeing. Some of the most valuable aspects of education are not easily measured like confidence, critical thinking, empathy, resilience, collaboration and creativity. These are often accidental by-products of education and not deliberately targeted outcomes.

COVID-19 has exposed these fault lines in our education system, but perhaps now we have an opportunity to reimagine what education might look like as we rebuild after the pandemic. Here are three things that I would like to see change in education:

  1. Technology being used to support academic, creative, social skills and emotional resilience and not just to increase efficiency in the way we deliver education
  2. Teachers, parents and pupils working together to personalise learning rather than just preparing pupils for exams
  3. Government, business and civil society collaborating on reimagining education so that all learners, especially the most disadvantaged, can thrive now and in the future

Widened inequalities and opportunities for positive improvement

An Institute for Fiscal Studies survey of 4000 UK families found that children from better-off families are spending 30 per cent more time on home learning than those from poorer families. The Education Endowment Foundation said its median estimate was that the attainment gap could widen by 36 per cent but that “plausible estimates” indicated anywhere between 11 per cent and 75 per cent. There are many reasons for the widening gap. Some of these include:

  • Unequal access to technology devices, broadband connectivity and individualised resources such as private tutoring or chats with teachers
  • Parents not having the time (needing to prioritise work over home schooling), the space (cramped home) nor the skills (skills/confidence to teach their children)
  • Economic uncertainty impacting employment, mental health and well-being, thereby pushing many families below poverty

Schools are more than places of transmitting knowledge. They are social support systems; offering food for the most disadvantaged, and providing a safe space to connect with peers and teachers.

As parents struggle to get to grips with homeschooling, many are developing a real appreciation for the efforts of teachers, working collaboratively with them in ways they never have before. Some children are discovering and developing soft skills which normal education does not allow time for; getting outside in nature, helping to prepare meals, learning practical skills in the home which will have utility in life beyond education.

And then there is that most underrated skill of all: navigating boredom. For many children, their overscheduled lives do not allow time for the imaginative thinking and creativity which arises out of empty pockets of time; this has changed during lockdown. Low-tech activities like painting, drawing, gardening, listening to music and even just sitting on a patch of grass making daisy chains creates a state of mindfulness which fulfils spiritual and emotional needs. We need to understand more about developing these social and emotional skills, so through the Future Ready Fund, Nesta is building the evidence base for what works, with the findings due to be published in autumn 2020.

Improving schooling

This pandemic is a timely reminder that health truly is our wealth. People are experiencing a real sense of community. For example, Connection Coalition, was set up to promote social connection at a time of physical distancing, in partnership with the Jo Cox Foundation, Nesta and others. We know isolation impacts well-being, mental health and resilience.

So if there is a potential to pivot from this crisis to a better way of learning and a new approach to education, what under utilised assets can we draw on and what should we stop doing?

We need new solutions to what are age-old problems. We also need to test whether these solutions work and under what context. That is why Nesta and the Department for Education have partnered on the Edtech Innovation Testbed to support innovative technology. The programme aims to build smarter evidence that can help schools and colleges understand what tools might help address their specific challenges. For example, Skills Builder is helping students to develop essential skills like creativity, problem solving, interpersonal and communication skills in young people. Personalised learning tools like HegartyMathsMangahighCentury Tech and Seneca Learning are being used by students to continue with learning during the lockdown by learners who have devices, motivation and support to access these.

Innovation in education is about finding the right balance between implementing well-evidenced solutions effectively and experimenting to find out what works in different contexts. Educational institutions need to better understand the evidence and find ways to mitigate any risks of trying out new solutions to their specific problems. Some brave school leaders have questioned the long-held assumptions around curriculum, assessment and pedagogy to create new school models. Some examples of places that have done this well are High Tech High in the US and School21 (London), XP School (Doncaster) and The Awen Project (Wales) in the UK.

Key features of these schools are:

  • Interdisciplinary work supported by blended learning
  • Interest-led rather than subject curriculum-led through project-based learning
  • Tailored support for students through better use of technology and evidence
  • Engagement in the real world to enhance learning and inspire aspirations
  • Building relationships beyond the classroom through relevant work experience

What are some other examples of schools that you have come across in the UK that are challenging the traditional assumptions around education? What should education look like after the virus so all learners can thrive? What are some examples of education culture where teachers are life-long learners and students are intrinsically motivated to learn?

August 8, 2020

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