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. 

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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Overcoming the Legacy of Section 28: Reaffirming the Need for LGBT+ Inclusive Education

In 2018, Scotland became the first country in the world to commit to fully integrating LGBT+ identities and the history of gay rights into the national curriculum following the recommendations of an LGBTI Inclusive Education Working Group. From 2021, all public schools in Scotland will be required to teach lessons on the HIV and AIDS epidemic, the history of equality campaigning, same-sex marriage and same-sex parenting, alongside an exploration of homophobia, transphobia, and biphobia, and their impact upon wider society.  

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Event Review: ‘Skills Share’ Networking Event

The Education policy centre’s goals encompass not only evaluating and recommending education policy, but also helping to enrich the experience of students who study at our university.  For this reason, we hosted ‘Skills Share’, an opportunity for current students to get helpful advice on how to excel in various stages of the job application process. The event’s premise hinged on the identification that that UK higher education is not doing enough to equip students with skills that are essential to entering the workplace following their degrees. As a result, students frequently feel lost when starting job applications and balancing them  with their studies. This is especially difficult for students from under-represented backgrounds in Higher Education, including disabled and first-generation students. 

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Sports Initiation Culture is not worth the ‘shot(s)’: Mental Health, Alcohol, and the University Experience

It’s a Wednesday night, which means it’s time for me to start getting ready for a busy shift at the student bar. It is also time for all of us to think about, look into and discuss university sports initiations and the culture behind them. I firmly believe that education, especially at university, goes beyond academic studies., I will be sharing research and thoughts on education with a focus on culture, wellbeing and inclusion as well as incorporating potential points of policy change. Given student initiations are the baptism into society life, I consider this the best place to start the conversation. 

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Is there space for minority voices in teaching about the past?

While British universities pride themselves as centres of international education and cosmopolitanism, an increasing number of voices in recent years have questioned the ‘global’ nature of the curriculums on offer.  A ‘global’ environment may be perceived by the extent to which it includes and continuously works towards promoting a truly diverse community. By questioning whether higher education in the UK is truly ‘global’, students around the country have begun a very important, and often neglected, conversation: which voices get to be heard in our education about the past? As a history student, my personal experience with  learning about the past at university has enabled me to reflect on whether (and how) diversity can be allowed institutionally. Universities are under pressure to diversify their history curricula and, as students, it is our responsibility to inform ourselves on this topic. However, it is even more important to look at the same problem at an earlier, and potentially more important, level: that of school education and minority voices. This article addresses the lack of diversity in university curriculums and argues that the teaching of history at schools must shift towards inclusivity and away from grand narratives. It additionally maintains that this shift is crucial in attracting students from more diverse  backgrounds to enrol in arts and humanities, and that it is the only way to combat the ‘us versus them’ mentality so prevalent in perceptions of both history and current events. 

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Event Review: Introduction to Policy Making Session with the King’s Scholars’ Programme

We should give all children on this planet a future that is worthy of their talents and dreams.

On 21 January, the King’s Think Tank’s Education Policy Centre held an event that brought one of our key objectives, making education more accessible, to life. In collaborating with the King’s Widening Participation Department on the King’s Scholars’ Programme, we presented the Think Tank and our work to different groups of Year 7 students. The primary aim of the event was to teach young people from under-represented backgrounds about policy making, as well as  opportunities to get involved with it at university. 

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The Failing State of British Education

For around a decade, immigration has been among the most salient issues for British voters, and particularly in the years since the decision to leave the European Union, British news coverage has been overwhelmingly preoccupied with Brexit and all of its corollaries. Though social institutions such as the NHS have come to the fore during this period, the issue of the quality of British education has largely been neglected, despite the fact that over half of all voters consistently view education as one of the most significant factors when choosing a party to vote for. When education has featured in contemporary political discussion, it has largely been invoked in relation to immigration, and as such, has been utilised as an ideological cudgel in televised polemics. For these reasons, though many Brits are keenly aware of the existence of education inequality within the UK, few are aware of the extent of the problem, and many continue to view Britain as a meritocratic society.  

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‘Dulce et Decorum est’: On what we remember and what we forget

A year ago, I completed a field trip assignment for the module History and Memory. I visited three First World War memorials and wrote an essay on commemoration, national narratives, and the politics of remembrance. In my essay, I included a reference to Wilfred Owen, the poet and soldier who highlighted the horrors of war as he experienced them in the trenches. What I forgot last year, but remembered recently when passing a uniformed poppy-seller, was that I was introduced to Owen’s poetry by my English teacher at school. Despite not coming up in our GCSE English paper, his work has certainly informed my perception of war, commemoration, and education in ways I find worth discussing in light of this Remembrance Day. 

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Educational inequality – addressing the root causes

In the face of rising poverty levels and with this, rising educational inequality, the education system in the UK is in clear need of reform. King’s Think Tank hosted a panel discussion on ‘The Inequality of Education in the UK’ on the 23rd November 2015 – an opportune event in light of the upcoming Spending Review, as education is the third largest area of public expenditure. Over one hundred think tank members joined panelists David Hoare – Chair of Ofsted, Amy Finch – Researcher on Education Policy at Reform, James Dobson – Researcher at Bright Blue, as well as Johnny Luk – CEO of NACUE (National Association of College and University Entrepreneurs). Head of the Education Policy Centre Francesca Tripaldi, introduced the debate providing an overview of post-war education policy to date, scrutinizing current reforms proposed by Secretary of State for Education Nicky Morgan MP. Continue reading “Educational inequality – addressing the root causes”