It was evident during the pandemic that there could be significant long-term changes in education, instigated or accelerated by Covid-19 and the measures put in place to combat it. These include:
1) A widening education gap. There was a sharp distinction between the way in which independent schools and state schools were able to cope with the pandemic. When schools were officially closed down in March, most independent schools had successfully shifted all of their lessons online within a couple of weeks. By contrast, the vast majority of state schools, burdened by the skeleton service they provided to key workers, a lack of resources, staff shortages and illnesses, and the absence of a nationwide learning program, were not able to launch an online program of learning in time. Most state school students went for months without any formal education and look set to suffer further with state education resources being funnelled into healthcare and stimulus packages for propping up the economy.
2) More parents considering the private sector. The insecurity in state education has forced more parents to consider private schools, increasing the competition to the already very competitive, selective secondary and prep schools.
3) A boom in private tutoring. Widening holes in state education and preparation for increasingly selective 7+, 8+, 10+, 11+ and 13+ exams have led to a period of unprecedented demand for private tutoring. Alongside this, redundancies and slow job creation in the wider economy have resulted in a massive increase in the supply of (often unskilled) tutors. We are at a time when the demand for experienced tutors has never been higher yet they are becoming increasingly hard to find.
4) Changing methods of assessment. This year, Cambridge University, in order to limit the spread of the virus, abandoned handwritten exams in some subjects in favour of “open book” exams that students completed on their laptops at home. Many argue this format is a better way of assessing degree knowledge and application than three-hour handwritten exams in a large hall. For the 11+, numerous secondary schools are adopting the ISEB computerised test for their admissions, which can be taken in the students’ schools, instead of conventional paper exams. For GCSEs and A-levels, teachers are calling for exams to be dropped or changed in favour of teacher assessments - the method used this summer - in order to address the uneven effects of the pandemic on students of different economic backgrounds. These indicators may signal a shift away from paper exams beyond the pandemic but the top schools are likely to continue to set their own handwritten entrance exams once the risk of contagion has passed.
5) Technology. With the expansion of online learning, the pandemic has pushed education more, and much more quickly, towards technology, remote learning, computerised assessments and self-learning. In my own experience as a private tutor, I was amazed to see how well and how quickly my students adapted to online lessons. In many cases, whatever disadvantages there were by not being by the student’s side were negated by the enthusiasm my students had for the interactive software we used and by the advantages of having the internet and all its resources at our fingertips.
6) Outsourcing. As a corollary of increased technology, schools have not just embraced external exams but have also embraced external platforms as part of their teaching toolkit. Platforms such as Bond Online, Atom Learning and Mathletics have been integrated into some schools’ curricula, not only because they often provide the closest simulation to specific exams, but they also reduce marking time for teachers and provide them with valuable analytics on their students’ performance.
7) New opportunities and constraints for tertiary education and international students. With curbs on travel, we are likely to see fewer students going abroad for university, at least in the short to mid-term. The pandemic also raises questions about the relevance of university courses as they are currently structured, especially if the networking and social opportunities of meeting other students in person are removed. Some institutions, regardless of the pandemic, are considering shifting large parts of their tuition online. Others are contemplating moving from a subject-specific degree model to a more modular system of ongoing short courses to better prepare their students for the volatile jobs market of the future. These changes may open up some institutions to remote students from all around the world. However, established universities which are heavily oversubscribed, are likely to adapt more slowly, since the prestige of attending them outweighs any hesitance in adapting to new economic models.
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United Nations (2020), Policy Brief: Education during Covid-19 and beyond, https://www.un.org/development/desa/dspd/wp-content/uploads/sites/22/2020/08/sg_policy_brief_covid-19_and_education_august_2020.pdf
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