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How to lockdown-proof our education system

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What are the best and worst scenarios, and how can education work through lockdown?

How can we make sure our education system works for students, teachers and parents during this lockdown? Photograph: Getty

Leaving Cert

Worst-case scenario: Long-term closures mean sixth-year students do not return to the classroom. Equity concerns grow over the number of students who lose out due to limited access to devices, broadband or study space. Many schools struggle to deliver quality remote tuition due to lack of training and investment.

A political determination to hold the traditional Leaving Cert at all costs turns into a move to delay the exams until later in the summer, followed by a late decision to establish a calculated grades system once again. There is anxiety, confusion and recrimination all around.

Best-case scenario: Remote learning is more successful this time around. A decline in infection levels results in a return to school for sixth years within a few weeks. While oral exams and practicals are delayed, students get to take part in the Leaving Cert written exams in June. Most are happy to test themselves through traditional exams which offer much greater choice than before.

How to bridge the gap: If we have learned anything from previous school closures, clarity is key. Open and honest discussion over options and contingency plans for exams or alternative assessments would help ease student and teacher anxiety. There are no good options: the options of traditional Leaving Cert exams or a move to calculated grades are hugely divisive and will attract heavy criticism regardless of what happens.

Primary schools

Worst-case scenario: Schools remain closed for the rest of the academic year. Despite the move to online learning, significant numbers of children disengage from education due to a combination of limited access to devices, patchy broadband or parents who are too busy or ill-equipped to support learning. The combination of learning loss from last year damages children’s concentration levels and results in reading and maths loss.

Best-case scenario: Schools are much better equipped to provide online learning on this occasion. Virtual learning platforms are in place, while teachers, students and parents are more familiar with online learning. The vast majority of children continue to progress and any learning loss is made up in a full return to school in the spring.

How to bridge the gap: A key challenge in remote learning during the previous school closures was finding the right balance between engaging students and not overwhelming working parents. Prioritising communication with parents will be key. Most teachers – and parents – found short activities were better than sending a full day or week’s work in one go. Supports may be needed to ensure children have access to devices to help with learning.

Secondary schools

Worst-case scenario: Significant numbers of children disengage from online learning. During the last school closures, some schools reported that as few as half of children were engaging online, resulting in significant learning loss. Further long-term closures could result in lasting damage and learning loss among students. This results in higher drop-out rates among students, despite significant advance in this area over recent years.

Best-case scenario: Investment and training in remote learning results in a successful learning experience for most students. Teachers are much more comfortable with online learning and know what works and what doesn’t. Students, too, are well versed in completing assignments online. Many see the longer term advantages of a blended approach to learning. Better supports are in place for students who have limited access to devices or broadband.

How to bridge the gap: We know now that the most vulnerable students lost out most during the last school closures. Some disadvantaged schools reported disengagement rates of 25-50 per cent among students. Ensuring there are better supports in place for hard-to-reach learners in challenging home environments will be crucial to limit damage to vulnerable students.

Third level

Worst-case scenario: Student drop-out rates rise sharply due to a combination of the challenges of learning exclusively online, a lack of peer support and anxiety levels. Many first-year students never get to set foot on campus or meet their classmates in person. Those who drop out of their courses face heavy financial penalties if they choose to apply and take up a new course next September.

Best-case scenario: Students continue to learn online with limited in-person teaching for practicals and lab work. The quality of tuition does not suffer and, if anything, is enhanced due to lecturers – and students – who are experienced with learning online. The successful outcomes redefine third-level education and make blended learning a permanent feature of the system.

How to bridge the gap: The good news is that an independent analysis of the impact of closures last year found that the standard of education did not suffer. However, even in normal times, about one in seven students drop out of their course. The big challenge is to ensure these rates do not increase. This means ensuring student supports – be they academic or relating to mental health – are made available to at-risk students.

Deis schools

Worst-case scenario: Much of the good work done in narrowing the gap between haves and have-nots over the past decade is reversed. Many students struggle to engage with online learning due to a combination of challenging home environments, limited access to devices or poor broadband. The learning loss in reading and maths, especially, has a longer term impact on students.

Best-case scenario: Online learning on this occasion is more successful given that students are better equipped and teachers have a better sense of what works and what doesn’t online. A big focus on interactive, bite-size learning keeps more young people engaged for longer, leading to positive outcomes.

How to bridge the gap: School completion and home school liaison staff can play a crucial role in ensuring vulnerable students are better supported. Ensuring that these supports continue remotely will be key. Many teachers also found the best way to engage hard-to-reach students was to involve them in small groups online and limit the amount of homework required.

Special needs pupils

Worst-case scenario: Despite a Government move to reopen special schools and classes, they remain closed due to health concerns. The school settings are vital in supporting children given that they provide access not just to education, but vital therapeutic interventions. Students, in many cases, are not able to engage online and regress, losing skills that may have taken years to master.

Best-case scenario: Special schools and classes reopen shortly once health concerns are addressed. Vulnerable pupils are able to access education and vital supports such as speech and language therapy, occupational therapy and psychological services. The devastating learning loss experienced by many children during the previous school closures is avoided.

How to bridge the gap: Online learning simply isn’t realistic for many special needs children who aren’t in a position to engage online. In-school tuition will be crucial. Reopening schools in the face of health concerns among teachers and therapists will mean communicating openly and honestly with staff and unions. If that involves a short delay to reopening, it will be worth it.

Early years

Worst-case scenario: Attempts to establish childcare and early years supports for frontline workers never materialise due to a combination of logistical and financial challenges. This limits vital workers – such as nurses, doctors and teachers – from being able to support important public services such as education or health. On a wider level, closure of the Early Childhood Care and Education (ECCE) scheme means preschool children lose out on the benefits of early years care and education and are less prepared to start primary school,

Best-case scenario: With the right supports, childcare and early years providers are able to continue offering services for frontline and emergency workers. This plays a crucial role in holding up health and education services at a time when they are needed more than ever. The early resumption of the ECCE scheme limits learning loss among preschoolers.

How to bridge the gap: Childcare and early years providers say financial and administrative supports are vital if plans to establish childcare and early years supports for frontline workers are to be realised. Clarity for providers will be vital if they are able to resolve financial and logistical problems which, many say, pose steep challenges.

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