Major Failings Uncovered Across UK Schools During COVID-19 Closures
At a time when the effect of COVID-19 on learning outcomes is attempting to be measured, policies and professional development in education specialist Dr Ryan Thomas Williams is speaking out to end the assumption that remote and in-person learning experiences were equivalent during school closures.
The University of Sunderland Associate Lecturer has uncovered major failings in leadership across UK schools during the pandemic, particularly in relation to the differing experiences of children learning in school, and from the home.
Between March - July 2020, it is estimated that up to 10% of children were still attending school in person, either as dependents of designated key workers, or due to the presence of additional learning needs. Having undertaken significant research into this particular area, Dr Williams reports an underlying leadership crisis in schools surrounding internal policies and the inconsistencies in how these policies applied to children in school, and to remote learners.
For example, Dr Williams’ research found that behavioural policies in the remote setting did not align with those policies that were being utilised within the school environment, such as the prohibition of mobile phones in school, and the encouragement of those same devices for remote engagement.
Similarly, Dr Williams noted that while schools have traditionally fought against the use of social media, they often relied on this for remote communications.
One of the most concerning failures noted by Dr Williams, however, is the decline in continuing professional development (CPD) during school closures.
From the start of the pandemic, teachers were forced to shift their approach from the long established method of face-to-face teaching to a much more contemporary and alien method of delivering lessons online. And with UK schools being closed for longer than those in most other countries, teachers spent 44% of their time teaching online, often without necessary support.
While the research by Dr Williams concludes that many schools did implement new technologies to help support remote learners, the CPD sessions that were run alongside these new implementations were focused more on the technology itself - what it was, and what it did - rather than on the pedagogical side of things - how educators could use that tech to teach.
This is something very close to Dr Williams, who has previously penned an Engineering International article exploring the vital importance of continuing professional development as a key component of educational success.
Ultimately, Dr Williams’ research concludes that, while school leaders have traditionally focused on ‘getting the job done’, this approach did not prove beneficial during the pandemic. Dr Williams firmly believes that leaders have shied away from making important decisions during the global health crisis, and that a willingness to change could have improved learning outcomes.
Dr Williams, who has previously served as an educational consultant, says, “Whilst it is difficult to criticise school leaders and their role and responsibility during a pandemic, the general idea or value of just trying to finish the job is relevant in discussions around TEL. I believe that professional development is underdeveloped in schools, particularly with regards to technology. School leaders tend to focus on the ‘wow factor’ of technology, such as the cost implications of iPads on the school budget. There is little thinking about how teachers can teach with that new technology in a truly transformative way”.
The UK Government notes that there were ‘wide disparities in young people’s home learning experiences’ during the pandemic. And while a significant part of that disparity certainly comes from a child’s home situation - for example, whether they had access to technology and devices, as well as parent support - the differing abilities of schools and teachers to provide the necessary learning experience to home learners must also be considered.
It has become abundantly clear that, on the whole, the ability of teachers to deliver the in-school experience to home learners was not especially high, with the United Nations reporting that ‘teachers across the globe were largely unprepared to support continuity of learning and adapt to new teaching methodologies. This sentiment is backed by research showing that 70% of primary and 60% of secondary teachers were forced to postpone or cancel their CPD during the pandemic, and that the majority felt that they needed additional support to use the technologies being implemented by schools.
So what does Dr Williams advise to address these failings? “I recommend that school leaders present opportunities for professional development to be focused on solid pedagogical strategies rather than on the technology itself. In this way, teachers will be able to adapt to the changes and developments that new technologies may bring and prepare themselves for the future”.