This blog is part of 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 during 2021.

The Covid-19 pandemic triggered severe disruption across society. Education was no exception, with every life stage, from the early years through to schools and higher education, all impacted.

As countries recover, many have urged against a return to business as usual, saying we can instead “build back better” –by looking afresh at deep-seated challenges, and collectively taking forward learnings from our pandemic crisis responses.

In this blog series, we have looked to widen the conversation on what building back better could really mean in education, with views from a wide range of education experts on what the country should focus on post-pandemic.

Looking back at the series   

As an organisation, our focus is on the transformative potential of education to boost social mobility. But education alone cannot be expected to solve issues stemming from deep-rooted structural inequalities in society – an issue which has come up throughout this series. The blog series kicked off looking at some of the wider societal issues impacting on education, including the mental health epidemic and the ongoing cost of living crisis. Our interviewees covered the need for more investment in school welfare services, and the impact more children living in poverty would be likely to have on already over-stretched pastoral services. Our experts stressed the need to see wellbeing support as a core part of catch-up efforts, and that tackling child poverty needed to be at the heart of any drive to reduce educational inequality. With the cost of living crisis ongoing, this is more important than ever.

Our next blog looked at the digital divide, an issue that was present before the pandemic, but which the crisis both highlighted and exacerbated. Our interviewees underlined the need to tackle this long running issue, to allow all young people to make the most of new blended learning approaches, combining the best elements of online learning with in person delivery.

This series also looked at potential changes in schools, now that children are back in the classroom, with the issues of teacher retention, exams and the curriculum post-pandemic all explored. As the Sutton Trust has previously stressed – teachers are our most important asset, and real progress to close the attainment gap will only happen if we can encourage experienced teachers with a high level of subject knowledge to move to and stay in schools with the least advantaged intakes – a sentiment echoed by our interviewees. On changes to exams and the wider curriculum, our experts were more cautious. While many recognised the limitations of exams, they largely felt they were the best option available – especially when looking to ensure a more level playing field for disadvantaged young people. They stressed the need for any changes to take into account the capacity of schools and teachers, after what has been an extended period of crisis.

Looking to further education and apprenticeships, while there was agreement from our interviewees on the importance of these routes,  there was also concern that more money in the sector was needed to ensure they can deliver for social mobility. Our experts highlighted the inequality in funding between vocational and higher education routes particularly, and how this could impact student choices. On student choice, interviewees were positive about the introduction of T levels, but stressed the need for further thought on how they fit into the sector more broadly, to make them an accessible and appealing option for young people. Our experts wanted to see more done to put FE on a more even footing with HE, with greater flexibility across the two. On higher and degree level apprenticeships, interviewees were again positive, but emphasised the need for a greater number of opportunities, as demand continues to outstrip what is still a low level of supply, particularly those targeted at young people.

Interviewees were concerned about many of the potential upcoming reforms to the post-18 landscape, with worries that introducing student number caps and minimum entry requirements could have a negative impact on students from poorer homes. Our experts stressed the need for any approach to be contextualised, to ensure the potential of young people from lower income families is recognised. Interviewees were positive about the potential for reforms to lifelong learning policy, but again highlighted the need for adequate funding to come with it, including enough maintenance support to ensure learners could make the best choices for them and their future careers.

Finally, on higher education, interviewees praised the quick decision making of universities during the pandemic, which was highlighted as a potential learning to take forward post crisis. Here too, our experts wanted to see institutions make the most of blended learning, but they warned against moving provision online entirely, and highlighted the benefits of in person interactions on campus, something we know is likely to be especially helpful for those from disadvantaged backgrounds.

Blue sky thinking

To round off this final blog of the series, we also wanted to highlight some of the “blue sky thinking” we heard from our interviewees, which hadn’t been covered in the series so far.

While mental health support was mentioned by many of our experts, it’s rarely discussed in the early years – but was by our experts. One wanted to see mental health support fully embedded throughout the system, from the early years all the way through to HE. Another stressed the importance of mental health support also covering parents of very young children, to help them to better support their toddlers.

Another interviewee also highlighted the hard work of poorly paid, and often female early years workers during the pandemic, who had been “put on the frontline without adequate PPE”. They wanted to see a step change in how we treat staff in the early sector post-crisis.

On schools, we heard about the need for a much better understanding of the challenges facing families in poverty and their children. Several interviewees highlighted the strengthening of relationships seen between schools and their communities during the pandemic, in some cases with teachers regularly delivering food and checking in on the wellbeing of families, along with schoolwork. They wanted to see these strong connections maintained and built upon post pandemic. While teaching is not often viewed as an ‘elite’ profession, one interviewee felt that schools could benefit from greater diversity of backgrounds in their staff, and wanted to see a focus on routes for young people from poorer backgrounds into teaching, to bring this important perspective to schools.

Another of our interviewees wanted to see routes into further study, whether academic or vocational, opened up to a far wider group. They suggested allowing students to study at university or on an apprenticeship with no prior qualifications, saying it would be an opportunity to see what those young people can achieve. We also heard the case for greater flexibility in what a degree looked like, perhaps moving out of the typical 3 to 4 year model and changing the length of programmes.

And perhaps more radically, another interviewee wanted to see decisions on further study delayed altogether and suggested preventing people from even going onto further or higher education until 21. They suggested doing so would give young people more time to know what they want to do, and that we shouldn’t be “forcing young people to make decisions at just 18 or 19 years old”.

Can we build back better?

What came out clearly across our interview series is that education faces major challenges as we come out of the pandemic. While there were certainly positive aspects, from blended learning through to faster decision making, the pandemic also shone a harsh light on inequalities in the sector pre-pandemic, some of which have worsened and many of which need to be urgently addressed.

Now that we have the chance to “build back better”, we should use it to tackle these challenges – to make a stronger and fairer education system, which give equal opportunities to all young people, regardless of their background. As said by one of our interviewees –

“The biggest thing I’m worried about is that we’ll just go back to how it was before. Educational institutions run on routine, and it will be very easy to slide back – but we need to take the good things which have come out of the pandemic, and make sure we keep them.”

The Sutton Trust would like to thank the education experts who gave their time to be interviewed for this project. This group included Sam Freedman, Becky Francis, Dylan William, Nick Brook, Cat Scutt, Loic Menzies, Anna Morrison, Nick Hillman, Jon Beard, Sarah Speight, Naomi Kellman, Ben Gadsby, Jim Dickinson and David Hughes, amongst others.

For more information, see our introductory blog, where you will also find links to the whole series.

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