The COVID-19 pandemic has had serious repercussions on the education system. From toddlers at nursery right the way up to university students, the children and young adults of Generations Z and Alpha have been removed from their learning establishments, challenged with embracing new ways of learning and left facing uncertainties about their academic futures. Along with the students themselves, their parents and teachers have similarly been thrown in the deep end and forced to adapt. In this article, we consider with Oliver Gilsenan, Managing Director of Lionheart Education, the impact the pandemic is having on our education system.
The closure and reopening of schools
While schools have remained open with a skeleton staff to accommodate vulnerable children and the children of key workers, the vast majority of children have been out of school in England since 20 March 2020. With the Government's decision that schools are reopening for certain age groups from 1 June, parents are faced with difficult decisions about whether and when to send their children back to school. This has been causing issues between some separated parents, who share parental responsibility, but disagree about how to exercise it in their child's best interests.
Just as family lawyers have encountered a surge of enquiries (in some cases resulting in Court applications) in relation to the movement of children between separated households (generally as a result of one parent preventing the child going to the other parent), they are now receiving queries in relation to schooling. While there is limited time for the Court to determine any applications now before the end of the summer school term, this may be an issue that extends to September and beyond, especially if the COVID-19 "R" rate (the "Reproduction" rate of the COVID-19 infection, which needs to be kept below 1) rises again, which may prompt parents to act on renewed fears of infection by removing their children from school or delaying further their return. The issue is not limited to whether attendance at school is appropriate, but also the nature of attendance, for example some parents no longer wish their children to board and some university students may choose to continue living at home rather than in halls of residence or shared accommodation. This may impact on the financial needs of the parents and the children.
With most children being out of school, teachers have worked hard to provide some sort of remote learning for their pupils and many parents have turned their hands to home schooling. It seems that the resources of private institutions have allowed for a more comprehensive remote classroom than state schools can provide. Nevertheless, some schools have been doing better jobs than others and there are varying levels of engagement by the students. There is concern that for many students, this will be a lost term. Parents need to work together and plan ahead by considering the optimum learning options for their children, which may include private tuition, whether by moving their children into private education or arranging additional catch up classes.
For those who are seeking to change their children's schools for the new academic year, this again can lead to parental discord especially between separated parents, and an accompanying risk of litigation if the matter cannot be resolved. The issue is not only an educational one, but also financial and societal. Parents who have children who attend either state or private schools may find themselves limited in what they can do to help rectify the issues their children are now facing, be this due to factors prior to, or because of, COVID-19 and the consequent economic downturn. In addition, we may see increased pressure placed on the state sector with fewer places available for students either because of increased demand or schools being forced to cut pupil numbers in a bid to control social distancing.
The cancellation of exams
SATs have been cancelled (instead there will be teacher assessments) and GCSE and A Levels will be awarded in 2020 by teachers and not as a result of final exams. Teachers will be given the difficult task of grading students based on their performance prior to lockdown. For many students, who might have been relying on exams for their grades, instead of consistently working across the year, this could seriously affect their university choices. It will not come as a surprise that many students patch the gaps in their learning in the final term, which is also when schools recap key topics and teach exam techniques. There are two options for those who disagree with the grades they get given: 1. Appeal; or 2. Sit the exams in the Autumn, on dates yet to be decided. It is expected that there will be a lot of uncertainty around the appeal process. The pre-COVID-19 process involves disappointed candidates asking the school to review their grades, then if the outcome is not as desired, they must ask their school to make an appeal to Ofqual, who will decide whether a hearing is necessary (an appeal can only be made directly in particular circumstances, e.g. if the student is home-schooled). In circumstances where it is the school itself making the grading decision (rather than an examining board), it is questionable whether this appeal process remains fit for purpose. In any event, it is anticipated that there will be a sharp increase in the number of appeals and hearings by Ofqual this year. For those in their final A Level year, the possible repercussions are particularly significant – they may not be awarded the grades to study their chosen specialism or at their chosen institution and may find themselves forced to take a gap year (or two) to allow them to sit their exams. If they do take this option, their gap years may be unlike any previous students have experienced, as the days of backpacking and country hopping may be a distant memory for some time to come.
The future of education
While many have lamented the hurdles of home schooling, it is inevitable that the shape of education will change going forward. Just as office workers have found that they are able to work from home to a large extent, so too is it expected that education will move further online. An obvious area which adapts itself to online learning for all age groups is homework, while online classes are more suitable for older students. Cambridge University has already announced that its "mass" lectures for the 2020/2021 academic year will be held online. Whilst this will be an attractive option for many educational institutions, not just to promote social distancing, but as a cost saving exercise, prospective under-graduates may consider tertiary learning a far less attractive alternative, particularly given the precarious job-market and economic downturn. For those students that decide to apply, their educational experience is likely to be very different to that of previous generations.
For those school and university students looking to the elongated summer stretching ahead of them, this is a good time to focus on trying to fill the gaps in their learning, concentrate on getting UCAS applications out of the way and to get any work and/or volunteering experience they can, even if this is only online. Parents, students and schools should also be alert to the expected further waves of the virus and think carefully about what they can do now to ensure their children's continuous education.
Practical guidance for COVID-19
Read the latest COVID-19 related updates on our hub.