Education in times of Covid-19: Challenges and Opportunities

On February 10th, 2021, the Education Policy Centre hosted an event to discuss the impacts of Covid-19 on the English schooling system and its approaches to creativity. Considering the multidimensional nature of creativity, the event afforded a broad understanding of the word as well as a specific reference to the arts. The event’s title “Education in times of Covid-19: Challenges and Opportunities” served as a springboard for two experts, Professor Catherine Boyle and Laura Mcinerney, to share their insights and experiences in their respective field.

Laura Mcinerney, education journalist, public speaker and co-founder of Teacher Tapp, has twelve years’ worth of experience working in schools and interviewed over 60 important figures in the realm of education. Laura’s journalism career spans across publications such as The Guardian, The Observer and The New Statesman. She has also published two books, “The Leadership Factor ” and “The Six Predictable Failures of Free Schools.” Laura enriched the discussion by providing a bank of statistics from teachers, parents and the current conservative government. Thanks to Teacher Tapp, she has been surveying over 6,500 users daily to reveal what’s happening on the ground in schools. 

Professor Catherine Boyle, Head of Spanish, Portuguese and Latin American Studies here at King’s College London, contributed her extensive research in the field of arts and humanities, which specifically intersect with community arts engagement. Projects such as community theatre and empowerment projects are on her list of achievements. She is the director of the Centre for Language Acts and Worldmaking, a flagship project funded by the Arts and Humanities research council and which aims to reinvent modern language learning. Creative projects to her name include “Out of the wings” which brings the wealth of Spanish-Language theatre to English-speaking theatre professionals. 

Laura began the discussion with a pertinent question to our digital times: should the camera be on or off during online teaching? Interestingly, Laura cited the example of the Netherlands, where 80% of teachers require pupils to have their cameras turned on, whereas the Brits prefer the camera off. During the discussion, questions were raised as to how dark screens could potentially prevent collaborative and creative thinking. As such, the results generated by Teacher Tapp demonstrated that group work in British schools happens less often than officials think.

For this reason, Laura suggested that the current office tends to overestimate the amount of group work taking place in state schools. As such, politicians claim that STEM subjects are being taught in fun, engaging ways but in reality, the situation is very different, with pupils having to work on group projects less than half the time. This demonstrates that, contrary to popular belief, generative, collaborative thinking is not flourishing in state schools. A chronological ‘road map’ of group work was shared to demonstrate how the pandemic, unfortunately, didn’t quite lead to creative, innovative teaching strategies. In fact, there was no group work taking place in the schools surveyed, either in-person or online, during September, October and November 2020. 

However, Laura also noted that even in an ideal Britain where the Government would always endeavour to champion creativity, especially initiatives backed by passionate teachers, this hypothetical fervour may fail to reach those communities that have different perceptions of what education should be like. For instance, communities suffering from financial precarity or communities with a migrant background may want their children to pursue traditional professions, which guarantee security and social mobility. 

Strikingly, the Teacher Tapp collaborated with the British Phonographic Institute to inquire into the wealth of an area and its relationship with music amenities available within state schools. Predictably, those who attended schools in wealthier areas were twelve times more likely to have access to an orchestra or choir to participate in. These statistics also sharpen socio-economic disparities further down the line. Raw talent needs to be nurtured through guided practice and tuition, yet pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds miss out on these important elements of success and thus are less likely to obtain a scholarship from esteemed music conservatoires. Laura pointed out how creativity isn’t just a conceptual tool or practical skill for high school students to possess, but also an access route or an unspoken qualification, which affords some a less bumpy path into creative industries. 

Whilst attitudes towards creativity in schools have had a chequered history in the past decade, Laura’s presentation concluded with some thought-provoking ideas on micro-credentialism and its future. She provided the exciting example of the 19-year-old collaborator recently hired onto the Teacher Tapp team after they completed a 12-week Codecademy course, who is now enjoying a lucrative salary. Laura thus encouraged the participants of the event to reflect on micro-credentialism and its potential to trickle down from professional settings to options available to 16-18-year olds. 

Going further, Catherine’s presentation focused upon the organisation Language Acts and Worldmaking, whose purpose is to ‘examine language as a material and historical force which acts as the means by which individuals construct their personal, local, transnational and spiritual identities.’ Thanks to her directorial insight into the inner workings of the project, Catherine explained how the organisation reacted to the pandemic. She emphasises the importance of community work takes into account intersectional and transnational perspectives. 

Language Acts and Worldmaking seeks to redefine what language learning is and debunk any myths about a monolingual British society. Such myths could stem from their causal link with what Catherine labelled the ‘crisis of language learning in schools.’ She stressed how the soundbite ‘worldmaking’ is extremely evocative and plays a crucial role in encouraging innovative and unconventional ways of framing and thinking about language learning, perhaps for those who were previously closed off to such opportunities. 

Referring to the organisation’s mission, Catherine stated that their work seeks to empower culturally aware and self-reflective citizens. Such ideas were catalysts for conversation throughout the whole event; the participants reflected on how these attributes can serve as building blocks for a student who has the agency to develop creative and abstract thinking.

Catherine spoke of the privilege that working in academia brings and how collaboration between communities, high school and primary level education could enrich each respective group. Unfortunately, she also pointed out that the curriculum restricts such creative cooperation, with even the most fervently creative teachers being bound by curricular limits. In response, Language Acts and Worldmaking began providing small grants to anyone who wanted to do something related to modern foreign languages or language learning in general. The initiative was a resounding success, with 96 projects having been funded nationally as well as internationally. One example that Catherine cited was formulated by King’s students. “Empowering Young Latin American Women” was an opportunity for recently arrived Latin girls to have a space to ask questions about higher education and university processes. Practical creativity provided a venue for all involved to design their own book cover with eclectic collaging as the main medium used.

Catherine’s strong ideas about the use of an arts and humanities creative outlook vis-a-vis responses to the pandemic was a striking feature of the event. Language Acts and Worldmaking sought to counter any reluctance to see research in the arts and humanities as a key player in the response to Covid-19. “Worldmaking in the time of Covid-19 – we narrate everything,” as Catherine eloquently stated. 

Discrepancies between the dominant narratives and those within local communities are important to consider, especially if they dictate the understanding of events. With this in mind, supported by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, a data-mining project took place. Media in Korean, Mandarin, Russian, Polish, Spanish, Arabic and a plethora of other languages was scrutinised across time to discern concerns surrounding Covid-19 within different communities. Young people were encouraged to engage creatively in this process, helping with the data collection and formatting it into podcast form. This was acted as an empowering and awareness-raising project, which demonstrated that we are part of a global world and brought to the surface the importance of empathising with a non-English language experience. Again, this project offered ways for students to apply divergent thought processes and acquire new creative humanities skillsets.

A provocative soundbite ended Catherine’s presentation. With specific regard to the event’s title, Catherine boldly stated education has experienced the ‘fantasy of the pause’ during Covid-19. Referring to such issues as Laura had previously mentioned, for instance, online schooling, the closing sentiment was one of bravery: if there had been more to it, the education system would have pressed pause in ways that are much more creative and better than what we are doing now. 

The event was a testament to the variety of perspectives on creative thinking and practices, not only within the English schooling system but generally for anyone’s personal development. The community was the theme that commanded most airtime from the event. Laura’s final recommendation was that the government should subsidise professional artists to give lessons in schools while teachers should prioritise core learning. Both Laura and Catherine’s suggestions centred on an increase in societal cohesion and cooperation to enrich curricula, broaden horizons and make certain professions and fields. Essentially, this increase in cooperation would allow for a creative change within the education system. 

ASEAN and the South China Sea: Southeast Asian Regionalism in Peril?

On 21st March 2021, Sino-Philippines tensions escalated as 200 Chinese militia boats were spotted along a disputed reef in the South China Sea (SCS). For decades, similar escalations between Southeast Asian claimants, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and the Philippines, and China have been prevalent.

The SCS is a vital trade passage, accounting for $3.37 trillion of trade including oil and natural gas. As protecting these essential trade passages becomes more critical as China’s aggressiveness heightens, Freedom of Navigation (FON) missions,alongside technical and military assistance to various Southeast Asian countries, are increasingly undertaken by the US and its allies to counter China to uphold the “rules-based order” and safeguard critical sea lines of communication (SLOCs). Beyond the SCS being an integral economic passage, it forms an avenue for the US to balance China in Asia, heightening the SCS’ strategic importance to extra-regional actors like the US. 

As China grows more ambitious, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), a 10-member bloc to promote stability, progress and cooperation in Southeast Asia, is failing to demonstrate tangible resolve in warding off China’s presence in their backyard. 

A lack of consensus makes a divided ASEAN on all fronts 

ASEAN’s disunity encumbers a cogent response to China’s aggression. Within ASEAN, individual countries have conflicting claims in the SCS  rooted within differing historical interpretations of territory in the SCS, challenging ASEAN’s legitimacy in coherently brokering a resolution with China. While the ASEAN Charter stipulates adherence to international law and calls upon peaceful settlement of disputes, this has not been completely watertight. In August 2020, Malaysia shot dead a Vietnamese fisherman after his fishing boat entered Malaysian waters, escalating Malaysia-Vietnam tensions. Although not directly related to the SCS dispute, this highlighted the propensity for inter-ASEAN conflict to easily undermine ASEAN principles of non-aggression, which is a dangerous precedent for future conflicts.

 Non-claimant ASEAN countries have occasionally hindered a concerted stance towards China, as ASEAN’s decision-making apparatus is predicated upon consensus amongst all members. In the 2012 ASEAN Regional Forum, ASEAN was left divided on responding to China, with some members accusing Cambodia of stymieing a unanimous response to a multilateral solution by siding with China. Cambodia’s unilateral interest in preserving cordiality with China, who frequently supports Cambodia extensively with aid, blocked ASEAN’s tradition of producing joint communique following conflicting interests, setting the precedent for ASEAN’s divisiveness towards China. 

For example, while the 2016 PCA ruled in favour of the Philippines over China, Cambodia steadfastly protected China from criticism, blocking statements mentioning the ruling against China, deadlocking ASEAN. In 2020, China was not mentioned in the 36th annual ASEAN Summit, dashing hopes of a harsher united stance against increased Chinese aggression. ASEAN dissonance inhibits an unequivocal stand against China. Claimant members like the Philippines and Vietnam, have resorted to bilateralism to resolve the issue, such as criticising China outside of ASEAN. These developments reveal ASEAN’s frailties in protecting the sovereignty and rights of the members.  

Structural and institutional frailties of ASEAN 

ASEAN falls short in having a lasting leadership, compounding difficulties in pursuing long-term strategic plans. Annually, chairmanship is rotated amongst the 10 countries, with each country injecting their national interests into the final communiques, as illustrated in the 2012 case, where Cambodia was the chair, inhibiting a cohesive communique. Without an empowered secretariat with proper initiative-making powers, ASEAN lacks a neutral-body capable of rallying its members together. Furthermore, as leadership changes every year, ensuring a continuous policy towards China is arduous, impeding resolutions to the SCS question.

These structural conundrums embolden China’s belief that the SCS issue is a bilateral, rather than multilateral issue. With ASEAN members’ mutual wariness, they seek independent measures against China, demonstrated by Cambodia’s accommodative stance juxtaposed to “Vietnam’s Naval Expansion” to ward off China.

Moving Forward: A more united ASEAN? 

While bilateral diplomacy might appear as a natural alternative to an association whose members are unprepared to resolve security concerns, especially when constrained by their policy of non-interference, their unwillingness to take a firm stance against China has grave implications. Not only would this skew China’s power asymmetry in the region, but it would cripple ASEAN as an integral stabilising force in Southeast Asia capable of defending their regional interests. With ASEAN members balancing the economic benefits of Chinese relations with China’s maritime expansion, along with the organisation’s structural weakness as an active player due to normative values of non-interference, Southeast Asia’s continued stability will be bolstered by ASEAN’s clear articulation of a stance on the South China Sea. 

ASEAN needs to build a sense of community with common interest in regional security before substantive agreements can be made regarding the SCS. By intensifying current efforts to promote ASEAN unity – both within ASEAN leadership and its people – a shared identity and responsibility to uphold the sovereignty of ASEAN members can be facilitated. With a concerted ASEAN, this raises the possibility that ASEAN members will start to see the SCS issue as a provocation on all.

This might provide grounds for a strategic communications grassroots campaign to counteract Chinese aggression, leading to capital flight from Southeast Asia and also, unifying the entire ASEAN body. Moreover, ASEAN solidarity is critical to precipitate a robust Code of Conduct (CoC) that will align the interests of all parties and stabilise the region. With a new CoC due in 2021, ASEAN needs to first, reassess its internal stance towards the SCS. Through an environment predicated on camaraderie, this can form a precursor to an internal CoC – a necessary first step before it can coherently respond to China. 

By Ariel Koh 

Ariel is second-year History and International Relations student in King’s College London and a Working Group Member of the Defence and Diplomacy Policy Center at King’s Think Tank. Her research interests lie in Sino-US relations and the role of regional organisations in global politics. 

Header image “180331-N-HE318-0283 SOUTH CHINA SEA (March 31, 2018) The forward-deployed Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Mustin (DDG 89) conducts a replenishment-at-sea (RAS) with the Henry J. Kaiser-class fleet replenishment oiler USNS Walter S. Diehl” by Commander, U.S. 7th Fleet is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.


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Antony Blinken: The New Face of U.S. Diplomacy

Since January 2017, the world has suffered a State Department that treated foreign policy more like a yo-yo than a strategy. Whilst he was a candidate, Donald Trump repeatedly mulled pulling the U.S. out of the Paris Climate AccordsIran nuclear deal, and even NATO. As President, he went two for three on those agreements, putting peace in the Middle East and America’s commitment to fighting climate change into jeopardy as a result.

At Foggy Bottom – a colloquialism originating from the State Department’s headquarters in Washington’s north-west quadrant – things were little better. From Rex Tillerson reportedly calling Trump a “f****** moron” to Mike Pompeo allegedly ordering staffers to walk his dog, these have not been easy years for America’s allies, or even State Department officials for that matter.

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Volt Europa: A New Path to The European Dream?

Back in November, the Policy Centre for European Affairs ran a Hackathon on “European cohesion in the age of populism: How should the EU strengthen European identity to counterbalance Eurosceptic forces?”. Euroscepticism and populism aren’t the only forces causing division in Europe and threatening the European project, but the motivation behind this event was to try and understand in what ways the European Union (EU) could strengthen its internal ties in order to secure its future. This is a hard question, because the EU is not in the best position to fight these forces. The EU is clearly more than a conventional international organization, but it has not yet become part of policy discussions at a state level. Even if it wished to increase its influence and assert its leadership position, there would always be strong opposition to giving EU institutions the kind of powers it would need to do so. Perhaps the solution for the future of the European project may not exist via top-down approaches championed by EU institutions. Instead, a bottom-up political movement may be needed.

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Crisis in the Near Abroad: Russia’s military build-up, and its place in the post-Soviet story

The West must accept that Russia will continue to speak for its own people in a world it considers unfair.

Russia’s relationship with Europe appears to be falling apart at a worrying pace. Events seem to be moving so quickly that it seems inevitable that the contents of this article will be incomplete by the time anybody reads it. In recent weeks, Joe Biden has ordered new sanctions on Russia, hunger-striking opposition leader Alexei Navalny is reportedly close to death, Russia has increased its military presence on its border with Ukraine, and revelations have shown that the perpetrators of the 2018 Salisbury Poisoning were also linked to a bomb blast in the Czech Republic in 2014. 

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Neither local nor global communities can afford the carelessness of Britain’s High Speed 2 Project

The 31-day tunnel protests beside Euston station have come to a close, after activists excavated and occupied underground networks to hinder the construction of an interim taxi rank – which will be built to adapt the Euston area for High Speed 2 (HS2) railway construction. Reports of the tunnel occupation are the newest of dotted media coverage that reminds us of the relentless opposition this controversial project has faced. The site the activists defended for a month is the only forested haven along the Euston Road – a place where ‘breathing is a risk’, having been frequently awarded the title of ‘one of the most polluted roads in Britain’ for exceeding legal pollution levels staggeringly for years. HS2 threatens this small park and patch of time-worn London planes trees, who will have witnessed the unfolding of this area of the city’s cultural and social history. They have been decorated symbolically with colourful scarfs for years, tied around their sturdy trunks to show visual opposition to the felling they have been threatened with – like preemptive bandages to coming, indelible wounds.  

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The Rassemblement National: mainstreaming far-right ideas in French politics

The Rassemblement National (RN) is a populist right-wing party that plays a prominent role not only in French society, but also in politics. The party was founded in 1972 on the premise of uniting dispersed far-right movements in France and continues to maintain a very strong nativist ideology and discourse. This can be summed up by the idea of a préférence nationale (national preference) which seeks to stop the inflow of immigrants who compete with French workers and ensure that only French people benefit from social welfare. Although the RN has never been in office, they have had a significant amount of influence on French politics. In order to understand the continued success of the RN, it is important to look at the factors that have enabled this.

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Limiting Lies: The Need for Greater Regulation of the Tech Industry in Europe

Although Europe exercises some of the world’s strictest policies towards the technology sector, the EU is considering passing new regulations aimed at ‘gatekeeper’ platforms, including Amazon, Facebook, Apple, Google, and Microsoft, to force big tech companies to remove dangerous content, hate speech, and misinformation. Renewed efforts by the EU to curb the spread of hate speech and misinformation are prompted by concerns over the recent growth of extremist groups, both within Europe and internationally, that are strengthened by their online communities.

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European waters and migration during the pandemic

As a French citizen studying in the UK, encounters with migrants while traveling across the English Channel have become a regular experience. Whether you take the Eurostar from Calais to Dover or the boat from Ouistreham to Portsmouth, you cannot ignore the reality of their situation, especially during the pandemic. One memory will always remain with me: I arrived by car at the harbour of Ouistreham when suddenly a group of migrants started chasing after the lorry ahead of us. They tried to jump on it and, unsuccessfully, attempted to open the back door of the lorry. This shocked me and at that moment I felt privileged. I had a passport and the right to legally cross the border. Meanwhile, they were illegal immigrants attempting something incredibly dangerous to be able to lead a better life. I was unable to help them and felt embarrassed that this was happening in a European country like France. But this is the reality of the lives of many migrants attempting to cross the borders to European countries.

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From anti-mask to anti-state: Anti-lockdown protests, conspiracy thinking and the risk of radicalization

German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier declared the attempt at violently occupying the Reichstag, the German parliament building, by far-right activists on 29 August 2020, as a direct attack on Germany’s very “heart of democracy,”. Demonstrations against state-imposed Covid-19 measures have been on the rise in many countries throughout the pandemic. Observers are now worried that extremist hate groups are using pandemic-related protests to advance their political goals – violently if necessary. Since December 2020, members of the Querdenken 711 group, the main organizer of nationwide anti-Covid restriction protests in Germany, are on an intelligence  “watch-list due to its increasing radicalisation”

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