Help us to shape a new education system – Post Covid-19 and the long term impact on North East schools

Unprecedented times

The Covid-19 pandemic will be seen as the defining issue for a generation.  Just as the country was bracing itself for the anticipated outcomes of Brexit, the biggest ‘unknown unknown’ since the second world war hit the country instead.  The unprecedented lockdown of schools, society, and the economy was necessary to protect the NHS and the most vulnerable of our population.  As the crisis has unfolded, understandably, operational issues have dominated everyone’s thinking – politicians, medical experts, and our region’s educationalists, and will continue to do so for some months to come.  

As ever, our schools have risen to these challenges in truly heroic fashion; they have coped, and will continue to cope, brilliantly, as they always do with whatever is thrown at them.  In the meantime though, the longer term and more profound effects of the ‘Great Lockdown’ are not yet beginning to be considered and the likelihood is that the impact of Covid – 19 will be greatest in regions like the North East.

This impact will exacerbate the challenges the North East already has to deal with. The North East has the highest proportion of children on FSM, with several local authorities having the highest levels of income deprivation affecting children. As well as disadvantaged children, the North East also has high levels of other vulnerable children, with the highest percentage of children with SEND and EHC plans.

North East among the hardest hit regions

A report from Look North earlier this week identified three areas in the North East as being in the top ten most affected by Coronavirus: Sunderland, Middlesbrough and Gateshead. This is significant as it illustrates that whatever long term effects Covid – 19 has, these will be felt particularly acutely in the North East. 

This impact will exacerbate the challenges the North East already has to deal with. The North East has the highest proportion of children on FSM, with several local authorities having the highest levels of income deprivation affecting children. As well as disadvantaged children, the North East also has high levels of other vulnerable children, with the highest percentage of children with SEND and EHC plans.

Challenging the powers that be

Over the last few weeks there has been considerable speculation and hype in the press about when schools will ‘reopen’ – as if they were ever actually ‘shut’!. However, there has been little consideration of the implications of returning. Whether pupils return to school in June or September, or there is a ‘phased’ return over several weeks or months, there will be a significant number of unprecedented issues and challenges that our schools must be properly equipped and supported to deal with. 

As the economy and schools head toward re-opening, the demand from every region of the country and every sector of business for additional government support will reach a crescendo.  It is vitally important that the North East begins to shout now and shout loudly for the additional support it will require to address these unprecedented issues and challenges.

Schools North East is starting a campaign to ensure that the impact of Covid – 19 on our region isn’t forgotten or drowned out by other areas and sectors.  We have begun to work with schools and educationalists to identify what these issues are and what needs to be done to properly support our schools and will challenge the regions MP’s, government, and the DfE to engage appropriately and early to ensure our region is not forgotten.

‘Learning loss’ and the Disadvantage Gap

Recent research from the Sutton Trust has shown that by April, only 34% of pupils had taken part in live or recorded online lessons, and that pupils from middle class homes are much more likely to have taken part. It will be vital going forwards that we begin to ask how will our schools deal with potentially the greatest ‘learning loss’ in their cohorts that they have ever seen.

Already an attainment gap exists between disadvantaged students and their peers, research from the EPI has identified that areas of the North East have some of the largest gaps in the country.  While school ‘closures’ were necessary for public health and safety, what will be the long term impact on all of our students, but especially the most disadvantaged, of prolonged closure on that divide. 

Bereavement, stress, and mental health

Schools will face significant additional challenges regarding pastoral care as they will now have to potentially deal with significant numbers of staff and students who may have experienced bereavement and prolonged periods of high stress.  Schools will be faced with greater numbers than ever before of children with increased anxiety, who are no longer used to set routines and behaviours.   Many more families will be affected by furlough or job loss, meaning that students who were not previously considered ‘disadvantaged’ or eligible for FSM, will fall into these categories. 

It is incredibly important to recognise that not only have our students been affected by the ongoing crisis, but our staff have been working tirelessly throughout the situation to support students, families and communities wherever they can. Staff may be facing similar challenges when it comes to wellbeing as students, with the possibilities of loss of household income, caring responsibilities and bereavements. 

And there’s more…..

There could be profound impact on Exam results, university progression, employment prospects and assessment.  Transition will be significantly different this year and have profound impact across all year groups and phases.  And not to mention the impact of the crisis on the Inspection Framework itself – can the new framework cope with the even newer environment it now finds itself in?  Is it any longer fit for purpose or even practically applicable?

Join the debate and ensure your voice is heard

The concerns we have so far identified will require new approaches and new thinking, which could influence the shape of the education system for years to come. The key recommendations in our Manifesto for North East Education, published in December, are now more relevant than ever.  Policy must be based on evidence, understanding of regional context, and provide specialist, bespoke support for our schools.

The new challenges our schools will face are not insurmountable provided policy makers and practitioners do not assume that, post-coronavirus, schools will be operating as ‘business as usual’. New thinking will be required.  To properly support schools to help our students through this, it is essential that policymakers involve them in conversations around what happens when schools reopen, and how to mitigate the impact of Covid-19 on our students. 

School Leaders and teachers in the North East have already been dealing with the issues of disadvantage in the North East, and have rallied to support students however they can throughout this crisis. If properly supported, there is no doubt that they will rise to the challenges this new environment will raise.  
Schools North East will be holding a series of virtual conferences with Head Teachers, CEO, education specialists and a range of stakeholders.  If you would like to get involved and ensure that your voice is heard let us know what you think.

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