Post-Covid education: What can Ireland learn?

A vast online teachers meeting took place recently. We have distilled the key points

Educators face unprecedented challenges that are being exacerbated by coronavirus. Photograph: iStock

Educators face unprecedented challenges that are being exacerbated by coronavirus. Photograph: iStock

 

Teachers have never been more respected: responding to Covid-19, helping children and young people through lockdown and reopening schools have shown the world how important these key workers are.

But educators face unprecedented challenges that are being exacerbated by the virus.

At home – and overseas – large class sizes, high-stakes terminal exams, educational disadvantage and underfunded third-level systems pose additional headaches for policymakers dealing with the urgent pandemic crisis.

Earlier this month, teachers from around the world joined together in a live-streamed, 24-hour online event to share their experiences and advice. The event was hosted by Education International, the global federation of teacher unions and professional associations, representing more than 32 million teachers and education workers across more than 170 countries.

The event featured inspirational teachers, heads of state, humanitarians and United Nations representatives including primatologist Dr Jane Goodall; Nobel peace prize laureate Kailash Satyarthi; New Zealand prime minister Jacinda Ardern; general secretary of Education International Dr David Edwards; and many more.

The Irish Times caught up with some of the speakers and talks and asked a question: what lessons can Ireland learn from the global community of teachers?

Reopening schools

Dr David Edwards, general secretary of Education International, says: “Teachers want to do the right thing but they’re worried about their own families and pressed between their professional obligations and personal rights. They say that governments are not giving them the information or support they need.

“From the evidence I’ve seen, teachers in Ireland have not been divided on reopening schools. Five weeks into the school year, Irish unions’ concerns about safety echo the concerns of teachers internationally: overcrowding in some schools making physical distancing difficult; requirements for teachers who are defined by the official guidance as ‘high-risk’ [having] to contend with schools’ emerging shortages of high-quality PPE equipment; and a lack of ongoing financing to upgrade digital infrastructure in schools and for individual students. It is clear that these issues must be addressed by the Irish Government. ”

Steffan Handal, president of the Union of Education Norway, adds: “I was quite surprised by how complicated it was to reopen schools – much more so than closing them.

“Trust and communications between health and education authorities is vital: it is difficult for health authorities to recognise the practicalities of what needs to be put in place – including test and trace, which is well established in Norway.”

Children’s wellbeing

Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director general of the World Health Organisation, says: “The pandemic has shown us who the most essential workers are: health workers, teachers and education workers. Long-term school closures may have a severe impact on child health, wellbeing and educational progress.

“The pandemic has shown us who the most essential workers are: health workers, teachers and education workers.” Photograph: iStock
“The pandemic has shown us who the most essential workers are: health workers, teachers and education workers.” Photograph: iStock

“Schools are more than places for children to learn: for many millions, it is where they receive nourishing meals, have opportunities for physical activity and access health services including immunisation. For many, it is the main place they learn about health and staying healthy. Schools can also provide sound guidance on Covid-19 and prevent the spread of misinformation to both children and parents.”

Dr Annie Sparrow, a medical doctor and assistant professor of population health science and policy at Icahn school of medicine at Mount Sinai in New York, adds: “We played Covid by the influenza playbook and it didn’t work. Shutting down schools is a man-made catastrophe. Child labour and child marriage are now parallel pandemics, we have seen an increase in mental and physical health problems, eating disorders and suicide.

“A range of physical, emotional and social issues are addressed at school. We have left a billion children – many already disadvantaged – stranded. We know how essential teachers are to society, the future, economies and our ability to deal with the next pandemic. When vaccines come out, we must protect teachers as part of the frontline, but they are being infected in their communities, not their schools.”

Kailash Satyarthi, founder of multiple organisations including the Global Campaign for Education, was the co-recipient of the 2014 Nobel Peace Prize, alongside Malala Yousafzai.

He says: “The pandemic has exposed and exacerbated the gaps in education. Out of a billion students, almost half have no access to online learning or internet facilities. We have to make sure that parents who are poor and marginalised get additional support to send children back to school.

“A large number of school children are dropping out and the fear is that 11 million children across the world may not come back to school if we don’t act now. Countries that allocated money to bail out economics and markets are not fulfilling their promises . . . the world’s most marginalised 20 per cent should get 20 per cent of the Covid response fund.”

Children and data

Dr Christina Colclough of the WhyNot Lab is an expert on the future of work, politics in technology and ethics in artificial intelligence.

Schools can provide sound guidance on Covid-19 and prevent the spread of misinformation to both children and parents. Photograph: iStock
Schools can provide sound guidance on Covid-19 and prevent the spread of misinformation to both children and parents. Photograph: iStock

She says: “Education unions need to protect their members and build capacity to understand digital tools and the building blocks of an algorithm. As teachers in the UK and Ireland learned recently [when predicted grade algorithms led to controversy], it’s important to know what questions to ask. Ed tech is a huge market that is predicted to rise to $285 billion in three to four years. When we have built capacity, we should look into what systems are in place in workplaces and schools.

“Are they proprietary systems? Who owns them? Why are education authorities recommending or buying into these systems? What agreements do they have in place with private tech companies about joint data access and control? Anonymised data can be monetised very quickly. The moment we see data as a commodity to be bought or sold is the moment when we subordinate human and privacy rights to monetary value.”

Larry Flanagan is general secretary of the Educational Institute of Scotland, Scotland’s largest teacher union. He says: “Why are these apps free? What are we giving away? We need to teach children to be critical, and that there is no free lunch. As unions and workers we need to assert our control and say that we will not be subject to opaque algorithmic influences. We demand insight and the right to collectivise our data and build our own data trusts so we can tell our version of the story.”

Equality gap

Dr David Edwards says: “Student support structures, homework clubs and, above all, a culture of high expectations for all students [are] critical [in tackling educational disadvantage], as are adequate career guidance supports. [But] placing the burden of eradicating educational disadvantage exclusively on schools is a flawed approach if not supplemented by coherent family support policies.

“Ireland appears to be one of the few countries with a dedicated government department for children, youth and families. Countries such as Singapore, Finland, New Zealand and Canada all have specific strategies for supporting disadvantaged students which focus on schools being the hub of community supports and teachers being given the time to liaise with other professionals providing support to disadvantaged families. Involving teacher unions in strategies tackling education disadvantage is vital.”

Environmental education

Dr Jane Goodall is a primatologist and anthropologist, famed for her study of the social and family interactions of wild chimpanzees.

She says: “Once we realised the pandemic was caused by destroying nature and pushing animals into closer contact with people, it became more important than ever for children to respect and understand nature.

“When we come through this pandemic, the climate crisis is still there. Students have so many ideas as to what they can do. If they understand the problem and you listen and empower them to take action, they come up with fantastic ideas themselves. I’ve been pushing for students to spend more time outside and in nature: books are very well, but see the eyes of children light up when they discover nature for themselves. My website, RootsandShoots.global, has more info and ideas.”