Opinion and Editorial

Building resilient education systems in pandemic times

Jane Mann
Filed on September 6, 2021

Cambridge has developed a set of outline principles for the future of teaching, learning and assessment to help navigate these discussions.

Many Gulf schools have to reopen for the second year under the cloud of a global pandemic. Much has been accomplished that education stakeholders can be justifiably proud about. Despite challenging circumstances, students and teachers overcame constraints and unknown factors to meet their learning goals — with several schools reporting historic highs in student performance, including in Cambridge exams.

Cambridge has been researching and engaging with its partners in government, public society organisations and donors from all over the world to understand the impact of the pandemic on education systems, their approaches for the upcoming return to school, as well as their views on the challenges ahead and their aspirations for the future. Part of our work in this regard was summarised last year in the Cambridge report. What have we learned about the Covid-19 impact on education so far?

We identified demanding challenges ahead but also the opportunity to better shape education to meet the needs of future generations of young people in a world that is likely to be quite different post-pandemic.

An opportunity to fast-forward education

Though it has caused severe disruption, the current Covid-19 crisis presents an opportunity to reconsider the purpose of education and to transform it to meet the needs of tomorrow’s societies. Cambridge has developed a set of outline principles for the future of teaching, learning and assessment to help navigate these discussions.

Around the world, many national curricula are being reviewed to reinforce foundational knowledge and skills, as well as to develop deep learning. Strong foundational skills are essential for progression and independent study, fuelling lifelong learning in an increasingly technological world.

Although we are still discovering what long-term socioeconomic changes will result from the global pandemic, it is likely to accelerate use and development of digital technologies (AI, robotics, Internet of Things) in all sectors. This will have an increasing impact on the nature of the skills required by the labour market. Alongside the obvious need to consider digital capability as one of the basic education foundational capabilities, it is likely that skills such as communication, collaboration, and problem solving will also have to become more predominant in education.

Supporting teachers

One of the positive outcomes of the pandemic is the appreciation of the role of teachers. Teachers have had to develop new ways of reaching and interacting with their students and their families, as well as with their classes. As many teachers developed new skills in record time, it will be important for teachers, schools and education leaders to reflect on what has been learned and assess whether some of the approaches could be retained to improve the quality of teaching and learning, and what further support is needed.

We could consider, for example, more efficient approaches to teacher training, and creating highly effective communities of practice. There are likely also better ways to involve parents in their child’s learning moving forward.

Highlighting learning gaps

The pandemic has also highlighted the unequal consequences of educational disruption. The bare essentials for effective home learning — personal technology, access to a suitable Internet connection, and a quiet space to study — were not available to all children. The most recently published OECD data indicates that students from disadvantaged communities have less access to personal technology and high-quality online learning resources.

Our recent report with EDUCATE Ventures in the UK showed educators were aware that remote education provision needed to be more interactive and efficient, but they were held back by technology. It also found a clear connection between people being confident sustaining remote education, and being supported by colleagues and family members. In the Middle East and North Africa, a Unicef survey found half of parents and caregivers stating that distance learning was ineffective due to a lack of resources, limited access to the Internet, lack of support from adult family members and difficulties in connecting with teachers.

Our Cambridge-EDUCATE report showed that parents of children with Special Educational Needs (SEN, or SEND — including Disabilities) were particularly disadvantaged. Their access to therapies, one-to-one teaching assistants and support was also badly affected by the Covid-19 lockdowns. Several parents of special needs pupils across the Middle East and North Africa similarly reported challenges teaching children when schools closed. Some parents also raised concerns their children’s support would suffer because of the financial hit they have taken as a result of the pandemic getting children back in school safely on a regular basis, whether physically or digitally, is critical. But the individual challenges facing different cohorts of children and the large learning gaps that exist need to be recognised. This will involve targeted strategies for getting at-risk children back to school and engaged in learning once again.

Now that schools have reopened, we hope to see a gathering of communities and discussions about building a longer-term vision for an education system that is resilient, sustainable and supports a wide range of learners.

Governments are also simultaneously considering longer-term implications and actively seeking support and collaboration in finding solutions to address wider underlying challenges. When planning this change at education system level, it’s essential to make evidence-based decisions and consider how the whole education system fits together, its specific context, and how to effectively measure the impact of changes (as well as how to use the resulting data!). With commitment to provide coherent, evidence-based approaches to improve education outcomes, and strong experience doing so, Cambridge Partnership for Education is keen to support governments in assessing the impact of the pandemic on their education systems, and to help them design effective solutions that address their current and future challenges.

Jane Mann is managing director of Cambridge Partnership for Education

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