This blog is the first in a series looking at challenges and opportunities in education as we come out of the pandemic, based on interviews with a range of experts carried out in 2021. Read the first blog in the series, which explores the effects of the pandemic on young people outside of the school gates.

Politicians across the world have talked about the need to ‘build back better’ after the pandemic. That rather than going back to business as usual, society should use the disruption caused by Covid-19 to re-assess what came before and improve it for the better going forward.

Here in the UK, Boris Johnson has become a champion of the need to build back better. However, exactly what ‘building back better’ could or should look like, including what exactly building a fairer society would mean for education, remains unclear.

The pandemic has highlighted many of the existing inequalities in our society, sometimes pointing to the issues that were long present but received little wider attention. From stresses on the early years sector, to the digital divide, these issues had previously been largely hidden from view.

It is now two years since the first school closures and lockdowns in the UK. The last few months have seen a transition back towards business as usual in many senses, however we must not be too quick to forget the clarifying experience the pandemic provided on what we as a society value the most.  And we must not forget that here remains an opportunity to confront deep lying issues head on, in a way that would not have been possible before Covid-19.

The pandemic accelerated changes we may have seen in the longer term, but with shifts happening in days or weeks, rather than in the years or even decades they may have taken otherwise. Education’s rapid switch to digital learning is a key example of this, and one which there is now the chance to learn from.

What is already clear is that the impacts of the pandemic will be felt in the education sector for many years to come, from the early years, through to schools and colleges, to apprenticeships and higher education.

In that context, this Sutton Trust blog series aims to open up the conversation on what build back better could mean for each stage of education, in a way that addresses educational inequalities and social mobility.

In 2021, we asked a wide range of education policy experts for their views on what recovery and change after the pandemic should mean for their policy area, with a focus on how any changes can best serve children and young people from lower socio-economic backgrounds. Interviewees were selected to cover a wide range of different perspectives, from practitioners working on the ground, to academics, policy experts and think tank researchers.

As an organisation, the Sutton Trust has also separately outlined its own views on what build back better should mean for the early years and schools, with further commentary from us throughout this blog series, taking into account both the views expressed in these conversations, alongside our own internal policy expertise and our experience working with disadvantaged young people, to give our recommendations on the best way to ensure a fairness first recovery.

For this series, to ensure all the experts we interviewed were able to speak freely, we have included their contributions anonymously, highlighting where several agreed, but also exploring points where views were more divided. We’ve asked both where experts would like to see changes, but also where they had concerns about the many reforms that have been proposed over the period. Importantly, many stressed that while there are real opportunities to make positive changes, there is also the risk of up-ending systems without full considerations of the consequences in a push for change.

The points raised by our interviewees may not reflect the views of the Trust, but we felt this was an important opportunity to represent a range of views in order to provoke debate and further thinking on how best to shape education in the wake of the pandemic.

The first blog in the series considers the social and family-level impacts of the pandemic, particularly considering those in early years settings and schools, covering mental wellbeing and poverty.

Keep an eye below to see the entirety of the series:

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