Education and COVID-19: What can the UK Government learn from other countries?

By Matt Bezzant

Friday 15 May 2020

This article also appears in Education Journal.

On Sunday 10 May, the Government announced a roadmap for the partial reopening of schools, with the hope of primary schools reopening for all Reception, Year 1 and Year 6 as early as June. The Government also hopes that, if the reproduction rate for coronavirus remains low, all those with exams next year, Years 10 and 12, can return to school from July. What can the UK Government learn from the actions taken in other countries?

Last month, the OECD published a framework to guide an education response to the COVID-19 pandemic. This followed a rapid assessment of education needs and emerging responses in 98 countries, including the UK, and described the challenges based on analysis of data from PISA 2018, which was delivered in the UK by NFER.

As set-out in the OECD guide, it is generally agreed that social distancing will continue for an extended period of time after nationwide lockdowns are lifted. This will continue to limit opportunities for students to learn, and is likely to disproportionately impact on more disadvantaged learners, as Ofsted’s Chief Inspector recently told MPs in a Select Committee hearing. It is therefore important that children and young people can return to school as soon as possible, whilst balancing this with the risk of further spreading the disease.

In April, the vast majority of governments around the world had directed schools to close. The majority of respondents to the OECD survey indicated that they believed it was critical to ensure the continuity of academic learning for students, to provide professional support and advice to teachers, to ensure the well-being of teachers and students, and to support students who lack skills for independent study during lockdown. However, respondents also acknowledged that ensuring the continuity of learning and supporting students that lack skills for independent studies were amongst the most challenging priorities to address.

A large percentage of respondents to the OECD survey stated that governments had done nothing to support the ongoing academic instruction of students, whilst some stated that clear plans with an implementation strategy had been provided. For example, some countries have provided online teaching materials, broadcasted educational programmes on national television, and set-up communication tools for teachers to interact with students remotely. Moreover, the majority of respondents said that no prioritisation of the curriculum had taken place.  

Not all students’ home environments were suited for home learning, even before the pandemic. Analysis of the PISA 2018 findings shows that in the UK, on average, over 10% of students do not have a quiet place to study, with that number being higher for disadvantaged students. Furthermore, over 10% of disadvantaged students do not have access to a computer for schoolwork, and a small percentage of all students do not have access to internet. 

Analysis of the PISA 2018 results show how prepared different countries were for effective online learning. In the UK, less than 70% of school leaders agreed that their schools had an effective online learning support platform available. This number varied significantly between disadvantaged and advantaged schools, with only just over 40% of disadvantaged schools agreeing, compared to over 70% of more advantaged schools.

The Government has attempted to address some of these challenges. At the daily Number 10 press briefing on 19 April, the Education Secretary, Gavin Williamson, announced that vulnerable and disadvantaged young people would receive laptops and tablets “to make remote education accessible for pupils staying at home during the coronavirus outbreak.” The Government also announced that it would provide 4G routers where disadvantaged pupils and care leavers do not have internet in the household. Concerns have however been raised that these schemes will not be in place in time to make a difference this academic year, with the majority of free laptops not being delivered until June.

The Government has actively promoted two online learning platforms, Oak National Academy and BBC Bitesize, as well as numerous other resources for pupils and parents online. The Oak National Academy is an ‘online classroom’ created by teachers and includes lessons for pupils from reception through to year 10. However, the Government has not actively promoted learning based on the national curriculum, instead leaving this for schools to continue leading.

Whilst some year groups may return to school over the next couple of months, it will be important for many pupils to continue home learning for the foreseeable future. What can the Government learn from other countries?

  1. Ensure that no child is left behind. The Dutch Government has set-up a fund to ensure that all pupils, particularly those from a disadvantaged socio-economic background, have the resources to continue to learn.
  2. Learning materials need to be readily available on paper and online in parallel. Schools in Estonia were well prepared for the unexpected pandemic, with all learning materials now available online and on paper. Many schools had already been using digital versions of resources and did not need additional support or guidance.
  3. Establish partnerships with local communities, local authorities, and other sectors across government and the private sector in order to support the delivery of education. In Portugal, a network of partner institutions helps to ensure contact with students from lower socio-economic backgrounds. In Latvia, mobile network operators, ICT associations and municipalities work together to provide access to online learning for all students.
  4. The Government should lead on providing online learning environments to ensure that all pupils are able to follow the national curriculum. In Japan, the Ministry of Education has set-up an e-learning portal, which provides free learning materials which can be used at home.
  5. Use an online portal to ensure that all teachers can interact with their pupils. In France, National Centre for Distance Education (CNED) created a free pedagogical platform which gives teachers a possibility to hold virtual classes to assure students have contact with their peers and teachers

This pandemic has been a steep learning curve for every country and government across the world. It is vital that children and young people are able to continue to learn during this challenging time in order to ensure that they do not become a disadvantaged generation in years to come. The more that the Government can do now to support pupils, teachers and parents, the better outcomes will be when the pandemic is over.