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School of Thought: Education’s New Normal

By July 27, 2020 August 26th, 2020 Features-Leeds, Features-Manchester

As children across the country prepare to return to school after a long, difficult summer, JLife swats up on the implications the new normal will have for our schools and universities.

For working parents dizzy from juggling Zoom calls and home-school, the Government announcement that children will be expected to return to the classroom full-time in September will come as music to their ears. But while local institutions such as Brodetsky Primary School and Leeds Jewish Free School have fought valiantly to keep their doors open, they have proven the exception rather than the rule, as the vast majority of pupils have missed vital swathes of curriculum since the March lockdown with untold repercussions on their education further down the line.

Though higher risk group activities like assemblies, choirs and gym and drama classes will not be reintroduced immediately, many parents will be worried about the health risks as attendance is declared mandatory for all, including those with special educational needs and disabilities. The new-look classroom will see children minimising contact and forming protective bubbles to reduce transmission of the virus – meaning if one pupil tests positive, fewer will have to self-isolate.

As for universities, the fallout from Covid-19 poses a substantial financial threat, with higher education institutions left reeling from a £11bn loss, amounting to a quarter of the sector’s annual income. Although 89 out of 92 of universities which responded to a Universities UK survey stated they will provide a degree of in-person teaching next term, this comes as part of a “blended approach”, with many announcing lectures will be moved online. Despite distance learning and many practical academic and social resources rendered out of action for at least the first term, students will still be charged full tuition fees for 2020 entry, leading many to question whether to defer their studies.

University of Leeds recently issued the statement: “Teaching for new and returning undergraduates will start as planned on 28th September, with activities with large numbers of students using digital technology. Teaching in small-group settings, including seminars, tutorials and practicals, as well as dissertation and project supervision, will be delivered face to face on campus wherever it can be done safely. The majority of on campus based services remain closed, and wherever possible such services are being delivered online.”

Murray Morrison, a leading education expert and founder of online learning program Tassomai.com discusses the post-Covid education landscape as the impact of a missed term of education on a generation of children remains unclear…

How will missed school time impact learning, and should parents take steps to mitigate these effects?

Everyone is in the same boat, and students who faced terminal exams this summer will have had all the learning part of their courses done. Unless there were major knowledge gaps that tuition would fill, I’d not be overly concerned. But I would advise any student to be as organised as possible when starting their undergraduate studies to ensure they have the clearest possible picture of what they are meant to have learned, and where they can find the resources they need to practise and catch up on anything they might be struggling with. University requires students far more to take responsibility for their own academic performance, so it’s essential that you get organised.

What was missed from the cessation of normal school/college life in March, was the personal growth and development that comes from preparing oneself for those big exams. When you’re at university, the job of revising for finals becomes much less structured, so missing this experience may cost students in the long run: anyone undertaking a degree in the coming years will need to bear that in mind.

How will exam results be calculated in lieu of lost teaching time?

Schools have calculated their examination results on a formula. This is a simplification, but what they’ve essentially done is rank their students for a subject and then feed that ranking into their historic grade outcomes. If a school in the past managed 5% 9-grades, 10% 8-grades and so on, the same breakdown of grades will happen, but those 9s will go to the top-ranked 5% of students.

There are numerous issues with this system, but it was thought on balance to be the fairest approach.

What are the physical hurdles to reopening schools and should parents be concerned about  safety?

The difficulty is that the problems faced are extremely hard to define. We all know what the fears are – that the virus is a killer and that it spreads easily in confined indoor spaces. Packing 1,000 kids and their teachers into a few buildings with narrow corridors is a worry. On the other hand, it’s quite unclear the extent to which children are at risk or spread the disease. Most experts seem to think they are at low risk, though the same cannot be said for all school staff.

The counterpoint is that the closure of schools is having a huge knock-on effect on parents and families and their employers, so there is a push to get schools back. We can only proceed on what the advice currently seems to be: that returning to school in September, with the restraints that are being put in place is of relatively low risk and quite necessary if we are to return to normalcy.

For new university students losing out on the benefits of social and academic resources, is it worth deferring their studies?

It really is a personal decision – one that comes down to what you consider the value of the degree fundamentally to be. If the main benefit to you was the learning content, the lectures and tutorial, with an aim to collect a qualification, then starting your degree with the distance learning aspect in place will mean you achieve those steps more quickly and continue on your path. Others will take the view that the social aspects of university are the major value of student life and might prefer to delay for a time and use the intervening period to develop other skills, take short courses, internships or volunteer work until they can fully participate in student life later on.