EVEN before schools find out what the new normal will be, the pressure is already on the education system to deliver significantly more.

Some talk about a ‘lost generation’ needing to ’catch-up’ amid concerns those comments stigmatise children. However, the reality is that children have missed months of face-to-face teaching, and that has inescapable consequences.

DISADVANTAGED SLIP FURTHER BEHIND

Wales’s learners have been part of the pandemic’s ‘collateral damage.’

Although, for now, there are more questions than answers, solutions to repair that ‘damage’ will need to be carefully considered and delivered during the Welsh Parliament’s sixth term.

Even before the pandemic, Wales already faced an uphill struggle to secure good educational outcomes for all its learners. 

The most disadvantaged learners have extra challenges which can prevent them from achieving their full potential. 

Even though the previous Welsh Government invested £585 million since 2012 through the Pupil Development Grant (PDG), the attainment gap it was seeking to close, didn’t narrow. 

It also typically widens as learners get older. 

There’s a stark difference between children eligible for free school meals and their peers at Key Stage 4, the two years where learners usually take GCSEs and other examinations.

Children and young people themselves are well placed to give their verdict. 

A 2021 Children’s Commissioner survey of 20,000 children found that 35% didn’t feel confident about their learning, compared to 25% in May 2020. 

63% of 12–18-year-olds were worried about falling behind.

There are countless reports setting out adults’ views about how missing more than half a year of ‘face-to-face’ schooling has affected learners. 

One of the major concerns is the variation between what schools have delivered to pupils.

There’s a long list of potential impacts:

·        ‘Lost learning’ meaning pupils could underperform academically and have their long-term prospects affected.

·        A loss of confidence in the examination and assessment system.

·        Long-term reductions in school attendance, a factor known to be key to educational outcomes.

·        Difficult transitions between school years and from primary to secondary.

·        Challenges in re-engaging learners and addressing low motivation.

·        An unhelpful ‘catch up’ narrative about lost learning placing unnecessary psychological pressure on children and young people; and

·        A negative effect on learners’ ability and confidence to communicate in Welsh where they haven’t been able to do so at home.

Schools under pressure; And more change to come after pandemic

WIDER EFFECTS

As well as these obvious educational issues, there are wider predicted effects. 

Current learners could earn less, with one estimate of up to £40,000 in a lifetime.

The harm to children’s physical health and a higher prevalence of mental health issues, including anxiety and depression, are also serious concerns.

 The pandemic’s wider economic impact is also likely to increase the number of children living in low-income families.

Again, it’s the most disadvantaged learners who are predicted to bear the brunt in the longer term.

For example, in March 2021, the Child Poverty Action Group found that 35% of low-income families responding to its UK wide survey were still without essential resources for learning, with laptops and devices most commonly missing. 

The Fifth Senedd’s Children, Young People and Education (CYPE) Committee heard that there is “plenty of evidence” that” there are striking differences between families in terms of their ability to support young people in their learning: the resources they have around them, the enthusiasm, the engagement, the commitment”.

REBUILDING TRUST

There must be work to rebuild relationships that have been under significant strain during the past 12 months. 

Those between teaching unions and the decision-makers within the education system; between parents/carers and schools; and perhaps, most importantly, re-establishing the relationship between learners and their teachers.

Some of the immediate solutions which are already on the table or up for discussion are: more money, including the ‘Recruit, Recover and Raise Standards funding’; more teachers and learning assistants on the ground; changing term times; and setting up summer schools, holiday clubs and home tuition.

However, the longer-term problems are far harder to solve.

One estimate puts the cost of Wales’s journey back from COVID-19 at £1.4 bn to meet the challenges to the education system alone. 

The opportunity exists for major reform and an examination of the whole approach to and aim of education.

Children and young people’s return to the classroom has been heralded as a big chance to put their well-being at the heart of education. As well as having a positive impact on well-being, put, mentally healthy children are much more likely to learn.

Following pressure from the Fifth Senedd’s CYPE Committee and its stakeholders, Wales has already made a significant shift towards establishing a ‘Whole School Approach to Mental Health’. The challenge during the Sixth Senedd will be to deliver it.

PERMANENT CHANGE

The potential sting in the tail is that, at the same time, the education system is getting children back to school, it also contends with major legislative reform. 

This is in the form of wholesale changes to both the school curriculum and support for learners with Additional Learning Needs.

Some may argue that there’s been no better time to have such significant changes. 

If the education system can successfully implement these three major reforms, arguably Wales will complete significant leg work and be on a firmer footing to meet the challenges presented by Covid-19.

At this stage there may be many more questions than answers for the education system. 

The world into which learners will move has changed forever. 

Not only has the pandemic interrupted their schooling, but the future journeys they were expected to make into the workplace or further and higher education could be unrecognisable. 

The skills and aptitudes needed in the ‘new normal’ are only now beginning to be identified and are likely to be different from those needed before the pandemic began.