As education recovers from the pandemic what should be the focus?

Author(s): Alexis Brown; Erica Holt-White; Natalie Perera; Tom Richmond

April 13, 2022

Universities must find ways to cultivate a sense of belonging amongst students

By Alexis Brown (HEPI)

It’s no secret that students have had a rough time of it during the pandemic. Those who weren’t in university yet missed out on the standardised tests and schooling that would normally prepare them for higher education, and those that had already begun university spent much of that time at home or isolated from their peers and not forming the kinds of connections they would have done in previous years.

Recent data from the UPP Student Futures Manifesto puts the problem in sharp relief. It reported that 73% of students said the pandemic had a negative impact on their mental health, and 52% of students said they felt behind in their academic studies compared to where they thought they would be. Universities must now find ways to not only help these students catch up in their studies, but also cultivate a sense of belonging amongst students who have not yet had the chance to feel at home in their university community. The Student Futures Commission recommended an induction programme for every year of study, not just the first one, and I think that would be an excellent way to help build cohesion in student communities.

There is also now a real opportunity to assess what elements of blended learning would be beneficial and worth retaining going forward. We know students prefer face to face teaching, but we also know that having some online elements of teaching have been positive from an accessibility perspective. Now is the time for universities to assess what can be done to ensure these gains in accessibility are kept while also making sure students are getting the kinds of in-person contact we know they value.

The sector must put social mobility and fairness at the centre of education recovery

By Erica Holt-White (The Sutton Trust)

The pandemic has caused major disruption to education, especially for young people from the poorest homes. It’s now two years since the first pandemic-related school closures – but the government is still not doing enough to meet the scale of the challenge when it comes to education recovery. The Sutton Trust wants to see significant investment in an education recovery plan.

The early years should be at the heart of these efforts, as many very young children have missed out on vital early experiences. Eligibility for funded early education for all three and four year olds should be increased, with many from less well-off homes currently excluded from the 30 hour offer. Early Years Pupil Premium should be raised to match primary school levels, so early years settings can deliver high quality provision to those who need it most.

In schools, we want to see a focus on great teaching to help students catch up. We believe teachers should be incentivised through an expansion of phased bursaries and increased pay to work and stay at challenging schools in deprived areas. We also want to see a refocused National Tutoring Programme, with clear targets around reaching low income students, and workable mechanism for ensuring high quality provision is supported. And the recovery plan needs to expand beyond the age of 16, for example by extending Pupil Premium to 16-19 year olds in education and training.

Across the sector, we must put social mobility and fairness at the centre of education recovery.

We need to see greater support for schools and a wider suite of policy interventions that confront underlying causes

By Natalie Perara (Education Policy Institute)

Last month, the Education Secretary unveiled the Schools White Paper. Two years on from the beginning of the pandemic, this presented an opportunity to focus on a long-term plan to get education back on track by tackling underperformance and inequalities.

While it contained some positive measures, EPI concluded that the White Paper’s targets to raise standards are likely to fall short given the lack of ambitious plans to reduce disadvantage gaps and tackle pandemic learning losses.

Government policies to date to support pupils’ recovery have failed to meet the scale of learning losses. Recent EPI research for the DfE has found that pupil losses remain substantial. While primary pupils have made some progress, secondary pupils are on average 2.4 months behind in their reading compared to where they would be in a pre-pandemic year. Losses are also far greater in the North and the Midlands, and among the disadvantaged.

Recovery must continue to be a priority, and plans must go further. Flagship interventions such as the National Tutoring Programme have not delivered as​ intended while total recovery funding only amounts to a third of what is needed to prevent long-term damage to pupils.

This needs to be met with a serious plan to tackle wide inequalities. EPI research has shown that, before the pandemic, poorer pupils in England were already 18 months behind their peers at GCSE.

If progress in narrowing gaps in education is to be made, we need to see greater support for schools and a wider suite of policy interventions that confront their underlying causes.

The exam system in England lacks ambition and needs to be reformed

By Tom Richmond (EDSK)

The impact of COVID-19 on school examinations in 2020 and 2021 was devastating, yet it would be wrong to assume that all was well before the coronavirus took hold.

First, the cost to schools is considerable. For example, making hundreds of thousands of 16-year-olds sit up to 30 hours of pen-and-paper GCSE examinations at a cost of almost £200 million a year is wasteful and unnecessary, particularly when these pupils must stay in education or training until age 18. Other countries have switched to online testing in both primary and secondary schools, illustrating how England is failing to keep up with the best innovations.

Second, ministers have talked endlessly about putting technical education on a par with academic subjects, yet the way that government holds schools to account shows that they continue to prize academic qualifications above all else. This engrained bias will remain until the government puts every course and type of institution on a ‘level playing field’.

Third, our exam system promotes an astonishingly narrow curriculum. Only 4.4 per cent of A-level students study more than three subjects, and we also allow 16-year-olds to select just one BTEC or technical subject for the final two years of their education. This makes England an outlier, as most other developed nations such as France, Germany and Ireland insist on a broad curriculum up to the end of secondary education including many compulsory subjects.

In short, the exam system in England lacks ambition and has barely changed in 30 years. Our recent reports at EDSK on ‘reassessing the future’ explain what needs to happen next.