Skip to content

Expert Blog: The new normal in education: a missed opportunity?

Dr Chris Rolph, Director of Nottingham Institute of Education, shares more thoughts on the impact of COVID-19 on the UK education system

Exam hall

One of the most overused phrases that has emerged during the Covid-19 crisis has been the “new normal”—what will the world look like when we emerge from national lockdowns and begin to go about our everyday business once again? Every day the popular press has new descriptions of the possible transformation of our culture, ranging from daily pragmatism to more far reaching global impact.

Intu, the largest shopping centre owner in the UK, has called in administrators, at the same time as publishing its own research which expresses confidence that shoppers will adapt to a new normal involving hand sanitisers, temperature scans, and cashless transactions. Airlines are predicting increased fares as they try to remain solvent, balancing passenger reassurance against increasing costs and reduced capacity. Some commentators see opportunities to shape the world for the better, as inequalities are exposed and health is prioritised over profits. Conversely, the World Economic Forum suggests that the economic and health risks of Covid-19 have been felt most sharply by the poor, who are least able to influence the political classes to bring about lasting change.

As a practitioner and researcher, I am interested in the potential for education and social policy change that could affect the children in our schools. Closing schools from March through to the summer and cancelling crucial public exams for two cohorts forced politicians and public alike to re-think what is important in education. At my most optimistic I’d like to think that lessons learned might be transferred to the new world order when schools return full time in the autumn.

The first important lesson that UK society learned is that schools are not simply places that educate our children. Although normal timetables came to an end on March 20, those that work in schools continued to support children in a variety of ways. Key workers’ children still attended, online work was set for those who could access it, and thousands of work packs were delivered to those who couldn’t.  However the dedication of education professionals went much further than teaching over a distance. When schools closed, social care systems also began to shut down as home visits became difficult if not impossible. Schools took up the baton; one small Nottingham Multi Academy Trust tells me it has made over 25,000 phone calls to vulnerable children from its five schools, to check on their wellbeing. One headteacher even took to the streets to deliver free school meals. Schools became the first line of support for many families, and this took precedence over the taught curriculum.

The second important lesson that many of us knew but which has been highlighted by this crisis, is that there is no substitute for a great teacher. Parents discovered that juggling working from home with teaching the children was no easy task, despite step-by-step instructions appearing on the internet like a rash. And access issues aside, the key to whether children learn online is the quality of the teaching rather than the method of delivery. A recent Education Endowment Foundation report found that while pupils can learn remotely it’s the quality of the teacher and their pedagogical understanding that underpins the progress learners make.

During the crisis a second aspect of teachers’ professionalism has also been called upon: their knowledge of pupils’ achievement. With no formal GCSE and A level exams, teachers have been asked to grade their students and put them in a rank order. There are concerns: at system level there are likely to be inequities in the overall process as schools’ reported scores will be moderated according to their historical performance, which is predicted to adversely affect pupils who are already disadvantaged according to a cross-party parliamentary committee. However the underlying methodology appears to be sound: prior to the Covid-19 crisis a Kings College study showed that teacher assessment is a reliable measure of pupil progress, despite the potential for unconscious bias.

In response to a letter from Secretary of State, the exams regulator Ofqual launched a consultation on the approach to exams for the summer of 2021. Given the lessons we’ve learnt  this summer, one might have expected to see amongst the proposals a reintroduction of teacher assessment in some form, both to recognise the professionalism and value of the teaching workforce, and to reduce the risk to pupils of a high-stakes terminal exam. Such optimism would be unfounded: the proposals focus on the timing and content of written exams, pushing them later in the year (to free up more teaching time), and introducing more optional questions (in case parts of the content have been missed), as well as creating some flexibility in how specific assessments are carried out. But presumably if there is another wave of the virus that hits the educational system, teachers will be expected to step into the assessment breach once again.

Ofsted is the other important regulator of standards in education, and while inspections have ceased during the school closure period, people have been asking what the inspectors have been doing to fill their time. Some answers can be found in Ofsted’s annual corporate report, published as lockdown began to be eased. Chief Inspector Amanda Spielman was at pains to point out that many hundreds of staff were redeployed to “support the national response”, while a few essential inspections continued. Work was also ongoing to plan for the post-Covid environment, and the inspectorate has published details of “visits” which will take place in the autumn term, pending a return to full inspections in January 2021.

According to Spielman, Ofsted’s autumn visits will listen to schools and “provide constructive challenge”, published in letters to parents. And herein lies the crux of the problem with the English inspection system. It is underlined in the corporate report which has a section on addressing Ofsted’s audience. While recognising that the audience is multifaceted we read only about how things are reported to parents. This is where we see the out-workings of neoliberal education policy, first implemented by the Thatcher government but continued, developed and strengthened by all successive governments since. The idea is that by giving parents information about schools (and there’s nothing wrong with that) they can then choose where to send their children in a quasi-marketplace: the audience is comprised of consumers.

If Ofsted were genuinely interested in putting children and students first, as expressed in their values statement, they would use the hiatus created by coronavirus to reimagine the inspection body, turning it into a genuine school improvement service and raising the importance of the school itself in the audience. To really serve the parents of those children already in a school, inspections would not only pass judgement but also help the school to make improvements. This means balancing challenge with support – how refreshing it would be if inspectors could share good practice they’d seen, make suggestions, even offer advice or demonstrate expertise! Daniel Muijs, Ofsted’s Head of Research, was among a group of authors who identified that external support is a key factor in securing school improvement; challenge alone is not sufficient.

Ofsted have missed an opportunity, and so in their own way have Ofqual, who seem determined to relegate the role of the teacher in assessment. Again, in the neoliberal quest to create a choice for parents through robust examinations leading to public league tables, the real essence of education is in danger of being lost. These two bodies appear to be conspiring together to undermine one of Unesco’s “9 ideas” for post-Covid education: value the teaching profession and teacher collaboration. Instead, there seems to be a determination to undervalue teachers, and force competition. Andreas Schleicher of the OECD says that after the disruption of the virus “the challenge is to build on the expertise of our teachers and school leaders and enlist them in the design of superior policies and practices”.

So far there seems to be little evidence of this, in the UK at least. Far from looking forwards and rising to the challenge, our political leaders seem intent on looking back and trying to return to where we were. In which case, forecasting life after Covid is straightforward, because the new normal will look just like the old normal.

Find out more about Dr Chris Rolph's research.

Check here for the latest coronavirus advice and updates from NTU.

Expert Blog: The new normal in education: a missed opportunity?

Published on 22 July 2020
  • Category: Research; Nottingham Institute of Education; School of Social Sciences

Still need help?

+44 (0)115 941 8418