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. 

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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Covid-19 Vaccines: Misinformation and Hesitancy

Despite the recent progress with the rollout of Covid-19 vaccination programmes, many mistruths circulating online have, in turn, had an impact on willingness to receive the vaccine. Unfortunately, this does not come as a big surprise. The ‘anti vax’ movement has been causing havoc for years by standing in opposition to vaccinating against disease, calling into question the safety of vaccines and circulating conspiracy theories surrounding the practice of vaccination itself. Although this kind of ideology has been around as long as vaccination itself, the accessibility of the internet coupled with the rise in use of social media in recent years provides the perfect breeding ground for such material. Vaccine hesitancy, a term which describes rejection or slow acceptance of vaccination, in relation to Covid-19 may not come as a surprise, but it is an issue worthy of attention as vaccination is our ticket out of the pandemic. 

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The Impact of Covid-19 School Closures on Children and Parents’ Mental Wellbeing

With schools having reopened their doors on March 8th, concerns have been raised that Britain’s school children now face a serious mental health crisis. British paediatricians have warned that they are witnessing an “acute and rapid increase in mental health and safeguarding cases”, with anxiety, depression and self-harm amongst young people rising to worrying levels. Parents have also been reported to be suffering psychological stress and breakdowns due to the pressures of managing their child’s remote learning whilst trying to sustain their own jobs. The Lancet has found that single parent families in particular, have the highest levels of self-reported stress. Gingerbread, the UK’s leading charity for single parents, stresses that the impact of dealing with the financial and practical pressures of Covid, whilst also having the sole responsibility for managing their child’s physical and mental health can be very overwhelming. 

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Covid-19 and the BAME community: Does It Affect Us All The Same?

When asked in late September about what the end of the year may look like for the United Kingdom Professor Chris Whitty, the government’s chief medical advisor, bleakly answered “we have a long winter ahead of us”. However, will this continue to be a long winter for all of us, or will this be disproportionately longer for certain groups within the UK? 

With a series of protracted lockdowns that have been on and off for the past few months, this question is increasingly relevant. It has been well documented that the COVID-19 pandemic did not affect all populations and communities equally. For example, the most significant findings from early reports during the first peak suggested that the BAME community had a greater proportion of hospital deaths compared to White British groups. Using reports by Public Health England (PHE) and by the Labour party, this article investigates whether the UK government has a plan to protect the BAME community during the remainder of the winter as previous evidence has shown gaps in the solutions proposed. 

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The unseen challenges of refugee youth in the face of COVID-19

The lockdown period in the UK has variably affected different groups in the country. One group consistently overlooked has been refugees and refugee children, in particular. Official figures state that there are 126,720 refugees in the UK, of which 10,295 are children. Prior to the pandemic, refugee children were already in an unfavourable position in society that affected their access to education, with many schools unwilling to allow their enrolment over fears that they would have an adverse impact on schools’ academic performance and their positions in league tables.

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Should the COVID-19 Vaccine become a Global Public Good?

When the inventor of the polio vaccine, Jonas Salk, was asked who owns his discovery, he responded, ‘the people. There is no patent. Could you patent the sun?’

As we enter the second year of COVID-19, various pharmaceutical companies such as Pfizer, AstraZeneca and Novavax have completed their final round of vaccine trials at a record pace, and the roll out in some countries has now begun. Despite this being a cause for hope as we finally start to see some light at the end of the long COVID tunnel, the world has started to witness the phenomenon of ‘vaccine nationalism,’ which may hinder the global battle against the pandemic. Such a term is used to define the actions taken by governments of wealthy countries, who have signed direct deals with pharmaceutical companies in order to receive first access to billions of COVID-19 vaccine doses for their own populations. In doing so, these countries restrict the access to vaccines for other states.

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The Impact of Covid-19 on Women and Girls’ Sexual and Reproductive Health

As the Covid-19 pandemic continues to spread throughout the world, concerns are rising about the effect of the virus on women and girls’ sexual and reproductive health, and their access to contraceptive care. Past humanitarian crises have shown that when there is a disruption in the supply and access to routine health care services, it is women and girls’ who are disproportionately affected, simply by virtue of their sex.  

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The Green Transition: South Korea and Japan follow UK Pledge to Work Towards Carbon Neutrality by 2050

The South Korean President, Moon Jae-in, has formally pledged that the country will become carbon neutral by 2050. This commitment to achieving net-zero emissions within the next 30 years is not an unprecedented step, but is in line with recent global efforts to tackle climate change.  

Major world economies have now vowed to end their dependence on coal and replace it with other forms of renewable resources as part of their Green New Deal, which involves a shift towards renewable energy and energy storage systems, as well as low-carbon energy systems. In 2019, the European Union set itself a similar target, with EU leaders agreeing to make their then 28 member states carbon neutral by 2050. Japan quickly followed suit with Prime Minister, Yoshihide Suga making an ambitious pledge to accelerate the country’s global warming targets. China, the world’s largest emitter of carbon dioxide, has promised to become carbon neutral by 2060, and vowed to begin cutting its emissions within the next ten years. It must not be underestimated how bold and ambitious these targets actually are. 

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