Institute of Education


IOE Public Debates

Radical and inspiring ideas for alternative education futures.

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Coming soon: IOE Debates will take a closer look at some pressing questions for the future of our education system in light of the COVID-19 outbreak.

Seemingly out of nowhere the world has changed dramatically, and with it our everyday lives, almost overnight. The impact on our education system as we knew it has been profound, certainly in the short term and possibly for some time to come.

What can we say at this stage about how our education system probably will look – or should look – in the months and years to come?

What if… our education system changed for good in light of the COVID-19 global pandemic?

Part 1: Schools

For weeks, schools have been closed to all but the children of key workers and the most vulnerable. To a far greater extent than ever before, teachers and parents/carers have shared the task of educating young people. Meanwhile, exams for the ‘class of 2020’ have been cancelled, to be replaced by teacher assessment.

Some groups of learners have faced particular pressures. Those without easy access to the Internet have had to forego online instruction and resources. Learners with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) and their families have temporarily lost access to the facilities, expertise and capacity provided by schools, in a system already under strain. Equally, the needs of the families least able to withstand the pandemic’s impact have exposed the vital pastoral work of schools in their communities.

Sat behind these headlines are very human stories of pupils, parents/carers and teachers all feeling the struggles of separation, from each other and from familiar routines, and concerns to protect health.  

Since COVID-19 arrived, where has our schools system been able to rise to the challenge, and where has it struggled?  What have we all learnt from having to do things very differently?  As we seek a way out of the pandemic, how will our schools system need to change and how, ideally, should it change for the future?

Part 2: Further education

As the pandemic hit, our further education colleges faced all the difficulties of moving teaching, pastoral care and governance and administration online. Meanwhile, vocational education has been presented with particular challenges. The employment and assessment of apprentices has been thrown into disarray for many, and there have been calls to delay the launch of the new flagship qualification, T Levels.

It is not yet clear when the disruption to this provision, created by necessary social distancing to protect health, can be decisively eased or discontinued. 

For the longer-term, the pandemic could bring marked changes to the world of work. Speculation has raised the prospect of nationalisation for some industries and ‘re-shoring’, as well as the rapid pivoting of business models amongst existing firms and the acceleration of labour-replacing automation. Vocational provision for school leavers will need to rebuild itself in an extremely fragile economy, with different sectors differently affected. Equally, colleges will also want to support those already in the labour market but hit hard by the economic fallout of COVID-19 and in need of opportunities to re-train.  
What has been the experience of our colleges since COVID-19 arrived? What impact do they envisage the pandemic and its aftermath will have on their vocational training offer? How can policy enable our college system to respond swiftly and effectively to the post-Covid context, for people of all ages?

Part 3: Higher education

Our universities have swiftly mobilised their research expertise, as well as their final-year nursing and medical students, to help stem the tide of COVID-19. But they are set to be deeply impacted by the pandemic themselves. The prospect of sudden significant falls in international student numbers threatens to change the face of our universities dramatically, in the process weakening their financial viability.

This has in turn placed the competitive, market-based system for the recruitment of UK-based students in a new light. Speculation continues as to whether all institutions and the diversity of roles they serve will survive or how the government will manage the risk that they do not.

Perhaps the biggest immediate question facing the sector concerns online learning. While this offers greater resilience and flexibility in the face of possibly reoccurring travel restrictions and social distancing measures to protect health, its longer-term appeal and efficacy at scale remain to be tested. Meanwhile, the need for the sector to attend to matters of diversity and inclusion have far from disappeared.
Can our university sector adapt to what will be a very different context, and in anything like its current form? How will it need to change and what will be the consequences of that? How should it change in order to better serve students and wider society for the years to come?

Dates and speakers to be announced - watch this space.


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