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. 

Argue with an Academic: Andrew Harrop on the Abolition of Inheritance Tax

When you tell people about the British tax system they don’t think it’s fair. Of course that’s true with respect to multi-nationals like Google, using legal loopholes to pay tiny taxes on their profits. But it’s also true when it comes to the balance of tax between rich, middling and poor families.  Continue reading “Argue with an Academic: Andrew Harrop on the Abolition of Inheritance Tax”

Argue with an Academic: Yuan Qiong Hu on Access to Medication

The year of 2015 marked the 20th anniversary of the Agreement on Trade-Related Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) under the auspices of the World Trade Organisation (WTO). TRIPS came into being and faced controversies since its early years. The impact of TRIPS on access to medicines and innovation has triggered international activism and resistance, especially from developing countries. Essentially, medicines that were once excluded from patent protection in many countries are now subject to patenting as required by TRIPS. Continue reading “Argue with an Academic: Yuan Qiong Hu on Access to Medication”

Female Genital Mutilation: An International Response

FGM. Three letters that have a power to send chills down any spine. It is incomprehensible that someone else could choose to excise a part of a human body, a piece of flesh, and someone’s womanhood.

Also known as female circumcision, FGM involves the partial or total removal of the external female genitalia, ie clitoridectomy and infibulation. Mainly preponderant throughout Africa, but also in the Middle East and Asia, it also occurs on our doorstep due to the constant migrations of vulnerable populations to Europe, in particular asylum seekers and refugees. The girls at risk can be as young as the age of 5. This is not a medical procedure: it has no health benefits. Neither does it stem from any religious beliefs. The justification for this procedure is solely cultural.

So why am I writing about this? Does it affect us? You and I are privileged to be in a position where it is our prerogative to speak out on behalf of those who have no voice. Freedom of speech is not a luxury – we own it. We have a power to raise awareness and protect our equals in this world. These cultures can seem worlds away from ours, which may marginalize the issue. Furthermore FGM is not always a priority and comes second to so many other forms of violence. Although strategies and conventions have focused on this cruelty, the fact remains, that according to the WHO, over 125 million girls and women in the world at this moment have been cut and numbers are perpetually increasing. Having access to this knowledge, how can we remain passive?

Before attacking this custom and banning it, it is important to understand why it prevails, as it is difficult to persuade those who uphold and carry out this practice to uproot a deeply entrenched custom overnight. It is still a sensitive topic in many countries, and one that must be addressed with prudence and diplomacy.

For the parents who submit their child to FGM, it may not be considered harmful, an assault or a violation. It is the belief that this is what must be done as a rite of passage to allow a girl to transition to womanhood (cultural and gender identity) or to prevent her from tendencies such as promiscuity or sexual deviation. It is seen as part of a “cleansing process”, to hinder bodily secretions and odours accompanied with maturity. Moreover, it is a means to ensure the purity of the female when presenting her to potential partners. These may be considered as protective measures, but the essence is that it remains a violation of human and women’s rights (it contravenes the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child), the right to life, physical integrity and health.

The social convention theory illustrates how it has become the norm to carry out this practice on girls without their consent, or their realisation of the potential future impact on their lives. This is thus the challenge: to convince not just a minority of the population, be they male or female, to break free from the social norm, but to educate the majority so that they understand the damage, and change their ideology in order to introduce a reversal of expectations. This is established through dialogue.

The United Kingdom is home to a wealth of cultures, including some for whom this practice is commonplace. The country therefore has an important role to play in eradicating this brutal act.

Educating our teachers, healthcare professionals and students at school to remain vigilant about the early signs of those at risk of an imminent procedure or to the symptoms of those who have just been cut is paramount. Signs such as a lack of integration into society, isolation from participating in physical activities, long trips to countries performing this rite and subsequent social withdrawal should be looked out for. It is imperative to provide support in the face of further complications: lasting physical effects, reluctance to seek medical attention, infection and other organ damage, as well as emotional or psychological repercussions.

Resources should be available for those who require legal guidance, and stricter measures put in place for offenders to be prosecuted. In 2003, the Female Genital Mutilation Act declared it illegal to arrange FGM outside of the UK regardless of whether it was legal in the country it takes place. However despite the criminal penalty being up to 14 years imprisonment in the UK for taking girls abroad, until this day no convictions have ensued.

We must recognise that in cultures where FGM is prevalent, avoiding the procedure can be considered as defiant, and individuals concerned are threatened with punishment. This changes the shape of their society from one of safety, to one of endangerment. However culture cannot be a means of justification for breaking the law or violating ones rights.

Abolishing female circumcision involves a multi-disciplinary approach: prosecutions, medical examinations, reporting of violence…

International governments have the manpower to support local communities to introduce educational campaigns. But we must circumvent the existing issues with these campaigns: they are mostly short term and small scale. It is time to think big: implement programmes, but monitor progress and evaluate their effects. Targeting those in power such as tribal leaders, healers, soldiers, and turning those people into role models will influence the communities who seek guidance in these leaders to follow suit. The other side of this coin however is the economic incentive for these matriarchs of society who are well paid for the procedure. Hence despite the steps taken to educate the local population, there is still a need for solutions. This is the ideal intersection for change and collaboration, partnerships and networks intertwined are key.

The access to media and other communications also enables us to propagate a message like a ripple in a pond across borders and achieve a much-required change and combat gender-based violence. There is a movement, but a more urgent effort is crucial to reach all corners of the world.

Rani Chowdhary

Argue with an Academic: Professor Edgar Jones on the Stigma Around Mental Health

In recent years, severe mental disorders have proved remarkably resistant to attempts to find effective medicines. The therapeutic revolution of the 1950s offered treatments for both psychosis and depression and it was expected that these pioneering drugs would be followed by a succession of innovative products. Although there have been a number of improvements, no step change in medicinal science has transformed the management of mental illness in the last half century. Continue reading “Argue with an Academic: Professor Edgar Jones on the Stigma Around Mental Health”

The World’s Most Neglected Tropical Diseases: What They Are, and What Is Being Done To Eradicate Them

Most people, when asked to think about deadly and debilitative diseases rife in the developing world, would jump immediately to Malaria. This would be a logical conclusion, as of course Malaria is an infamous killer, and is responsible for about 450,000 deaths a year. AIDS and Tuberculosis should not be forgotten, but it is parasitic worms and other mosquito-borne diseases, which often get overlooked, thus preventing neglected tropical diseases (NTDs) from receiving the time and funding that could eradicate them completely. Continue reading “The World’s Most Neglected Tropical Diseases: What They Are, and What Is Being Done To Eradicate Them”

Ambitious Realism at the Paris Climate Talks

On the morning of 12th December, President of COP21 and French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius delivered a passionate speech preceding the release of the final draft of the Paris Agreement. He spoke of the need to recognise how “collective efforts are more than the sum of our individual actions”, that if nations failed to agree, “our children would neither understand nor forgive us”, and that the negotiations had produced an “ambitious and balanced” agreement that recognised the notion of climate justice. Continue reading “Ambitious Realism at the Paris Climate Talks”

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”