Schools demand support for “resilience over efficiency” to tackle post-pandemic challenges

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In 2015, the countries of the UN unanimously agreed on 17 sustainable development goals, to be implemented by 2030. Among the ambitious aspirations of this agenda – for example to eradicate poverty and hunger, to support sustainable economic growth and to ensure the protection of the planet – is sustainable development goal 4 (SDG 4), the aim of which is to “Ensure equitable and inclusive quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all”.

To help to support progress towards the achievement of this goal, the T4 Educational Trust launched a free virtual event under the heading of World Education Week, where over 110,000 teachers and education leaders came together to share experiences and best practice. Reflecting the challenges we face in the world today, not least the 2020 pandemic, participants called for a seismic shift in education policy priorities across the world: a move from “efficiency” to “resilience”.

Resilience – coping with setbacks, recovering from difficulties – is a quality the world in general will be much in need of. For example, with a predicted world population of 9.8 billion by 2050, up from 7.7 billion in 2019, we will be struggling to live equitably in a world of increasingly stretched resources. Responding to the climate emergency will also depend on appropriately educated and resilient populations. People will need to be equipped and ready to move the world economy away from outdated carbon-based technologies onto a new sustainable footing. In developed countries, we will have to learn to radically modify our expectations and lifestyle, in order to ensure the protection of the Earth’s ecosystems and the survival of life on the planet. All of this puts pressure on education systems to adapt and evolve.

If those might still seem to some like issues for the future, this year’s Covid-19 pandemic brought the need for resilience to the very forefront of our attention with its extreme demands on the ability of schools and students to cope with upheaval. Schools were closed for months on end, exams were cancelled and, in the UK, the system for awarding crucial exam grades was botched. Young people across the world have been physically locked down, with unequal access to the internet resulting in a widening of the education gap between the most and least well off growing in England and Wales by a reported 46 percent, and with negative impacts on mental health.

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It is against this background, that, in the open letter addressed to world leaders and education ministers across the globe, school leaders attending World Education Week proposed that education systems need to move away from prizing above all the “efficient” (and low-cost) delivery of learning outcomes. Instead: “… what this year has emphasised is that the resilience to meet huge challenges is the key to maintaining the continuity of education for our children, both to ensure the highest standards of learning and to re-establish the social glue of schools as communities. This requires financial investment and leadership”.

This conclusion was drawn from contributions to the World Education Week programme organised around the themes of:

  1. Building programmes to enhance employability, entrepreneurship and life skills
  2. The use of technology
  3. Promoting the science of learning and teaching
  4. Deepening family and community engagement
  5. Focusing on wellbeing

In the UK, it is possible that, at least with regard to the first theme above, attention is turning towards engendering resilience in the workforce. The rush to invest in academic, university-based education at the expense of the more practical STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering, maths) is now widely recognised as a weakness in the British education landscape and the government has now committed to investing in technical and vocational education after many years of neglect.

Technology (theme 2) may already be widely used in schools, but the resilience of future educational programmes will now be judged on the extent to which they are ready to provide an interesting and stimulating online platform that will keep pupils interested and committed if and when their schools have to close again in future. This has clear implications for teacher education (theme 3). Ultimately, however, success depends on governments taking responsibility for funding the provision of equal access to such modes of learning and, in the UK, avoiding a repeat of the situation whereby over two million children are thought to have done no schoolwork during lockdown.

Contributions to themes 4 and 5 led to a statement in the open letter that what we have learned from the pandemic experience is that “the institution of ‘school’ is often at the heart of the community, where the issues a community faces are often reflected and, often, resolved”. A clear priority, then is to for schools to be enabled to remain open. In the absence of the ‘continuity’ and ‘social glue’ they provide, children’s motivation and mental health will suffer, as teachers in the UK are finding with their returning pupils this autumn.

These are tough times for school leaders, teachers and students, and the plea from the World Education Week for systems to prioritise ‘resilience’, a quality they will all have had to call on this year, will undoubtedly strike a chord with many of them. The world we expect our education systems to operate in and prepare us for is constantly changing and the lesson from World Education Week was that old priorities such as budgetary efficiency do not help schools to manage the kinds of complex problems and crises we face. While every school leader and every teacher can contribute to the resilience of their own institutions and programmes, support from government in terms of policy and investment will be key. Teachers know what needs to change and it is to be hoped that governments will listen to them and support them, for the sake of future generations of children and indeed of the planet. As the open letter reminds us, “Whatever the question, education is the answer”.

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