What the pandemic taught us about education

Big Change's 2021 Pandemic as Portal report
Big Change
Holly Branson
Holly Branson's writing
Published on 20 April 2021

I am feeling very proud of a new education report from Big Change and Relationships Foundation which has gathered the thoughts, feelings and emotional experiences of the students, parents and teachers who faced the challenges and turbulence of education in the past year first-hand. Taking inspiration from the below quote by Arundhati Roy, the report views the pandemic as a portal through which we can all work together and build on our learnings from the past 18 months. The aim is to create a better and brighter education system in which young people can thrive, while parents and teachers and full supported and involved.

“Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next. We can choose to walk through it, dragging the carcasses of our prejudice and hatred, our avarice, our data banks and dead ideas, our dead rivers and smoky skies behind us. Or we can walk through lightly, with little luggage, ready to imagine another world. And ready to fight for it.” - Arundhati Roy.

quote from Big Change's Pandemic as Portal report
Big Change

I love how this report not only gets to the very heart of the issue and reminds us of what really matters to people in the school system, but poses some very insightful questions that we can all explore with young people, teachers, our MPs and parents, to help us all reimagine education. As we look ahead at a post-pandemic world, there is a great opportunity for the education system to break with the past and focus more on supporting all young people to thrive in every aspect of life and not just exams. You can read the full report here, and I’ve shared three key insights and just a few of the questions (there are a lot more in the report) that we should be encouraging everyone to ask, below.

Schools are places of belonging, as well as learning: Home-schooling throughout the pandemic threw this into stark relief and changed the way that teachers, parents and students relate to one another. The report indicates that this led to new tension and conflict, as well as regressive behaviours and a sense of vulnerability and exposure. As one contributor to the report put it: “The physical being together is the serendipity of school.” With this in mind, it’s important for schools to acknowledge they are a place of belonging and understand that learning happens through relationships. As digital learning remains a factor of life, it’s important that students can maintain relationships over and above these learning platforms. 

Question: What would schools do differently if they considered their role as a place of belonging in which learning takes place through relationships?

quote from Big Change's Pandemic as Portal report
Big Change

Schools help build students’ sense of identity and agency: The report highlighted how the experience of lockdown (including the experience of becoming more dependent on others, unable to control events, changed relationships, and feeling incapable in the new and unexpected roles we found ourselves in) had a big impact on parents, teachers and students sense of agency and personal identity. Now that schools have re-opened, it’s important to manage expectations around a total return to normal, so that schools aren’t placed under even greater pressure. 

Question: How can schools and communities work together to explore the needs of parents, teachers and children as they return to more familiar roles and goals? Are schools ready and willing to accept parents as colleagues? 

Holly, Sam and Bellie Branson with Princess Beatrice and others celebrating at a Big Change event
Image from Big Change

Parents and students struggled with their ‘purpose’ in lockdown: The report indicated that children experienced the lockdown as a ‘lack’. There was a lack of contact, a lack of space to develop their own identities, and a noted lack of purpose. As parents suddenly had to balance new and competing priorities, adapt to new roles, uphold safe and secure households, adjust to new technology, and maintain healthy relationships with their children and others around them – many of them also lost sight of their purpose. On the other hand, the report showed that teachers and school leaders used the experience to reflect on their purpose and really think about what changed they could make when the pandemic is over. 

Question: What adjustments need to be made by schools to their ‘recovery plans’ to help children find themselves at school again? 

Quote from Big Change's Pandemic as Portal report
Big Change

These insights really highlight the all-inclusive role that schools play in supporting the wellbeing and development of young people, well beyond academic measures. It also shows the need to engage more with parents, teachers and the wider community too. Now that schools have re-opened and lockdown is easing, it’s important to not lose track of these voices and to take what we have learnt from the last year to create the change that needs to happen so all young people can get the best possible start in life.   

I’d love to hear your thoughts on the questions posed in the report and any personal experiences you’d like to add to the conversation – after all education is everyone’s business.  It’s critical we use this opportunity to reimagine an education system, that fulfils the needs of young people, teachers and parents, and develops the skills we all need to navigate our rapidly evolving world.

Read the full report here.