Teachers school us

COVID-19 has stress-tested our education system and forced many schools to rapidly adapt to a range of challenges, from delivering remote learning to facilitating social distancing in classrooms (no small feat, if you ask any teacher). The challenges have been many, but there is also much to be learned from schools’ frontline experiences during the pandemic. Over recent months, teachers have been reflecting on the practices and processes that have helped them to adapt. From these conversations, it is clear that the pandemic has brought into sharper focus aspects of our education system that are often less visible, and shed light on some of the ways it might be compelled to change for the better post-lockdown.

These insights have emerged from Nesta’s conversations with Whole Education: a network of schools and partners united in their belief that all young people deserve a high-quality whole education that enables them to thrive in life, learning and work. Our partnership with the network has opened a window into the (virtual) chalk-face, and summarised below are five themes that have emerged from our dialogue with their team of expert school leaders and classroom teachers. They reflect the views and experiences of schools with a common vision for education in England, but we believe that threads will resonate with educators and learners across the UK.

1. The importance of fostering student agency

Students who have agency are active in their own learning: they set goals, believe in their ability to achieve them and monitor and reflect on their progress. While it has always been important for learners to develop this kind of independence and self-regulation, for many schools Covid-19 has shone a particular light on its value and impact on learning.

During lockdown, teachers have found that students with a clear sense of agency and ownership over their work have also been more engaged with remote learning and motivated to complete tasks without teacher input. While the factors that make students good independent learners are complex and not just the result of schools focusing on it as a priority, for headteachers like Shonogh Pilgrim, the pandemic has reaffirmed her school’s commitment to a student agency agenda. By focusing on helping all students set and work towards individual academic goals, Shonogh describes how students at Ansford Academy are encouraged to take ownership over their learning:“That’s not to say it’s not important to have teachers that work hard with the students … But it’s also the students’ responsibility to come to the table actively seeking to learn, rather than expecting someone to force it on them. And when we went into lockdown that absolutely was central to the vast majority of our students thriving - because that didn’t change.”

Student agency is by no means a standalone ‘superpower’-- the curriculum and quality teaching and learning remain essential. But it is an important piece of the puzzle, and one which schools may increasingly prioritise as they return to face-to-face learning.

2. Evolving understandings of ‘disadvantage’ in the home

Economic instability has meant that some schools have noticed a rapid change in the number of children classified as ‘disadvantaged’ based on common metrics, such as eligibility for free school meals. Accompanying this has been a shift in the types of families who are experiencing financial hardship. Les Hall, principal of Mounts Bay Academy in Cornwall, predicts that after the summer there will be a very different type of disadvantaged family in his school community: “It’s your small business owners - and there’ll be a lot of frustration and embarrassment there. They’re not necessarily going to want to come forward and be identified as vulnerable.”

In addition to shifts in the types of students who are experiencing socio-economic disadvantage, schools are also noticing that disadvantage is manifesting in different ways during lockdown. Some students have been ‘digitally disadvantaged’ by their lack of access to the internet or individual devices. Others (including students from middle-class families) have been ‘time disadvantaged’ because working parents have had less capacity to directly support home learning. Dan Morrow, CEO of Woodland Academy Trust, notes that “All of these issues existed pre-Covid. Covid has just brought into sharper focus what the true impact of that disadvantage is. And actually, what it’s really shown is the vital role that schools as educational providers - but also physical buildings - have done to overcome that disadvantage over time. But essentially what we’ve done is look at the symptoms without addressing the causes.”

As has been widely reported, school closures are likely to have a significant impact on long-term disadvantaged students and are already widening the attainment gap. But teachers have also cautioned against over-generalising students’ lockdown experiences based on demographic background. The impact of Covid has not been unrelentingly negative. For example, there are students from all backgrounds who have had positive and formative experiences as a result of increased time with their families.

3. Schools as pillars of the community

In addition to facilitating remote learning for students, schools have played a pivotal role in supporting their local communities during the pandemic. Most visible has been the distribution of food parcels and essential supplies - but behind the scenes, schools have also been proactively reaching out to families and developing rich lines of communication and feedback with vulnerable parents. And for some schools, this has prompted a positive shift in how they are perceived by their local community.

Headteachers spoke passionately about this renewed engagement with their local communities and the support they’ve been able to offer families. Amelia Smith, headteacher at Braunstone Frith Primary School, acknowledged that “while we can’t control some of the things that are happening in [families’] lives, what we can control is the support we give them and the value that we place on that.” And this role in supporting the community is one that many schools have embraced. Among those we spoke with, there was no resentment about going ‘above and beyond’: “I’m really comfortable in being that for our families. Because it’s not just about providing learning needs, it’s about making sure that students are in a position to learn and to be able to access learning, and that parents are also in a position to support their children. And that might mean we’re providing a food parcel or bedding, in a respectful way” (Rachel Tomlinson, headteacher at Barrowford Primary School). As schools return to face-to-face learning, many will be looking at how to maintain and build upon these newly strengthened relationships with families and communities. As they do so, the wider sector needs to value schools’ engagement with the community, but also recognise that teachers shouldn’t be expected to do this work without our support.

4. Reflecting on the role and purpose of schools

With exams off the table this year, space has emerged for schools and families to reflect on the purpose of education beyond exam outcomes and attainment. And for some schools, this has been an opportunity for them to revisit other priorities - like fostering a joy of learning, supporting wellbeing and focusing on the learning process rather than just exam outcomes. For Dave Bennett, Head of Winstanley School, the pandemic has renewed his schools’ strategic focus on supporting the social and emotional wellbeing of students and staff: “That’s going to be one of our key areas. It’s always been there, but now we need to get it to the top of the agenda.” The de-prioritisation of exams has also given Dave space to reflect on wider social issues, and the role his school can play as a vehicle of social change: “I’ve been really struck by the Black Lives Matter protests and agenda. Schools should be promoting social justice - and how are we doing that? … The space of lockdown has allowed me to think more [about that].”

More broadly, some teachers also see this is a pivotal moment for schools and the system to rethink what school-based provision looks like in England: “If we don’t recalibrate our thinking around the philosophy and provision of education in this country we will have missed the golden opportunity.” (Dan Morrow, CEO Woodland Academy Trust). Educators will have different views on what such a ‘recalibration’ should look like. Of those we spoke to, some thought that schools should foster more active community citizenship in young people, while others wanted to see the system value a more holistic purpose for education and maintain flexible learning options for students who have thrived during home learning.

5. Overcoming barriers to harness the potential of digital technology

Despite its potential, technology hasn’t been a panacea to the challenges of learning from home during lockdown. Limited access to devices and wifi has been a major barrier for many young learners: some are sharing a laptop between siblings, while others have waited months to receive government-issued devices. Jon Clarke, Senior Deputy at Walsall Academy, described how his school has operated two different online learning platforms in tandem (Microsoft Teams and Show my Homework) in order to continue provision for digitally disadvantaged learners. Students who only had smartphones were able to download learning materials from Show my Homework (often using public wifi), and then transitioned to Teams when government-issued laptops arrived in July. Jon now feels that the school is better prepared in the event of another lockdown, but notes that the long delay in receiving government laptops “created a social divide very, very quickly”.

Schools’ success in transitioning to online learning has been influenced by a range of factors, including the extent to which teachers received appropriate training prior to lockdown, the degree of school management buy-in, students’ access to technology and appropriate software to access learning materials, and learner agency and engagement. Even schools like Ansford Academy, where all students have their own devices, have had to build flexibility into their timetables to accommodate homes with weak internet connections: “if you’ve got three children always trying to access the internet at the same time and your internet connection is awful - that’s really stressful” (Shonogh Pilgrim, Ansford Academy). Looking ahead, the lockdown experience will undoubtedly shape schools’ future planning, particularly around IT infrastructure and device access for learners. It may also prompt a richer discussion about the most useful and evidence-based applications of technology in classrooms.

While learning catch-up will need to be a priority come September, schools also need space to reflect on and implement what they’ve learned during the pandemic. In some cases, this might mean a more radical shift away from the status-quo; for others, it might see a doubling-down of efforts focused on wellbeing, student agency, social justice or community relationships. Supporting schools to adjust to the new normal will be a priority for the wider education sector - and in doing so, it’s crucial that we listen to schools’ experiences, rather than making assumptions about their reality. Nesta’s dialogue with schools through the Whole Education network has been an invaluable learning experience, and one which has opened our eyes to the complexities of schools’ provision during the pandemic.

Based on what we’ve learned, we also recommend that:

  • We encourage the spread of quality practice and new ideas between schools by supporting forums and networks like Whole Education that facilitate peer-to-peer professional learning. Many schools across the UK are already beacons of outstanding practice when it comes to fostering student agency, or exploring more radical ideas about how our education system could evolve. These examples need to be shared.
  • Teachers and all school staff should be recognised for the wider role they play in directly supporting communities and families - and the unique value of these relationships. But they shouldn’t be expected to maintain this ‘behind the scenes’ work indefinitely or alone.
  • We should interrogate our assumptions about the ‘easy solutions’ offered by education technology, which is often oversold and underused. Online learning hasn’t been equally accessible for all young people, and the pandemic has starkly exposed the ‘digital disadvantage’ that many experience. To harness its potential, more needs to be done to overcome infrastructure barriers and identify education technology that most effectively supports learning for all students.

We’d like to offer our sincere thanks to the following headteachers and members of the Whole Education team who have given up their time to speak with us, share their insights and contribute to this blog: Douglas Archibald, James Pope, Lisa Ling, Jo Corrigan, Shonogh Pilgrim, Jon Clarke, Dave Bennett, Amelia Smith, Dan Morrow, Rachel Tomlinson, Les Hall. Through our partnership with Whole Education, Nesta has had the privilege of attending and learning from Whole Education’s series of network events. We have also supported the expansion of their Big Education Conversation initiative.

Stay tuned for Nesta’s forthcoming report on what education could look like ‘after the virus’ - due for publication in October 2020.


Emma Sutherland

Emma Sutherland

Emma Sutherland

Assistant Programme Manager

Emma was an Assistant Programme Manager in Nesta’s Education team.

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Wayne Holmes

Wayne Holmes

Wayne Holmes

Principal Researcher, Education

Wayne led on developing Nesta’s education research agenda and producing research on how technology can be used to reimagine teaching and learning.

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