The road to educational recovery

In November 2021, at the Society for Education and Training (SET) annual conference, David Russell, Chief Executive of the Education and Training Foundation (ETF), took part in a panel discussion on educational recovery, with guest speakers Professor Ken Spours from the UCL Institute of Education, and Bally Kaur, Research Lead at the Institute of Education at the University of Derby.

Together, they discussed the recent research into the harms and mitigations within the Further Education (FE) sector following the Covid-19 pandemic. Here David summarises the discussion and shares his highlights from the event.

Almost two years since the first case of Covid-19 was recorded, the SET Conference 2021 offered an opportunity to reflect on the pandemic’s impact on the FE sector, and to discuss possible pathways towards recovery.

Led by leading thinkers Bally Kaur and Professor Ken Spours, our session started with the discussion of Ken’s findings from his latest research, The impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on the Further Education sector and mitigating measures: a rapid review of the evidence, undertaken in November 2021 for the Department for Education (DfE) by the UCL Institute of Education. From his research, Ken highlighted six primary harms of the pandemic to the FE sector, which included: the vocational disruption of young people and adults, mental health and wellbeing, changes to modes of learning (such as assessments and qualifications), problematical transitions, and the overstressed and overstretched FE sector. We also discussed the inequalities experienced by disadvantaged young people, and the resurgence of youth unemployment, particularly for young people from minority backgrounds.

The pandemic’s impact on inequality

Our other guest speaker, Bally Kaur, had recently completed a doctoral study exploring the educational narratives of South Asian Muslim women in a socio-economically disadvantaged area of North Birmingham. She brought to the discussion a range of reflective questions, including: “How do we recover time?” And secondly: “Do we want to recover a time that wasn’t fit for purpose in the first place?” Bally’s poignant questions raised broader reflections on the harms and mitigations of certain groups who have been impacted more negatively than others. As she remarked: “Care work within the family network is often very gendered, such as raising a family or looking after older parents. I’m imagining a very exhausted humankind, posing as a workforce that’s holding our society together. How much do policymakers know of the lived experiences of FE students, their communities, their families, and often their complex migratory histories?” From Bally’s evidence, it became clear the pandemic has driven disparities within our society even wider: the social and developmental gaps could turn out to be more significant than the knowledge and skills gaps.

The power of the educational space

Another key topic for discussion that Bally raised was the power of the physical educational space and what its loss might mean for Further Education and Training: “The educational space is where students encounter difference and possibility, so our educational settings are a crucial space for the construction of identity. For students from ethnically diverse backgrounds, this space enables the construction of a hybrid identity, which acts as that crucial bridge between different environments.” As Bally argues, the educational space offers much more than simply learning in a classroom, it gives young people the agency and knowledge to navigate diverse environments. Online learning, whilst having many positive attributes, has not replaced this form of educational space. I believe this is a very profound observation, and one that needs wider recognition and discussion.

Recovery: social, economic, psychological and educational

Recovering from a pandemic will take a multi-faceted approach, but what do we actually mean by recovery? I believe there are at least four types of recovery that FE will play an integral part in addressing. The first is social recovery. As a sector, we will need to tackle the effects of isolation and loneliness, as well as job displacement and unemployment. Whilst we understand from the statistics that unemployment is currently quite low overall, this is very unevenly distributed and there has been a huge shift in job displacement.

Secondly, economic recovery. Most people are acutely aware of the economic challenges we face already, such as skill shortages and job vacancies. There is a tangible mismatch between the jobs that people have been doing and the jobs that employers are looking for, a high-profile example of this would be the UK’s high demand for HGV drivers. There is also the bigger economic recovery of public finances, which are now in an unprecedented state.

Thirdly, we must consider the needs of psychological recovery. The impact the pandemic has had on our population’s mental health and wellbeing cannot be underestimated. We have faced so many challenges, from the lockdowns (whether literal or self-imposed), to recovering from the psychological effects of illness or of bereavement. Another psychological challenge of the pandemic has been the effect of prolonged, low-level fear. For almost two years, people have been living with a level of fear and threat hanging over them; for themselves, for their loved ones, and for countless aspects of their lives which have been disrupted or affected.

Finally, educational recovery. One of the greatest challenges that the FE sector faces is understanding and recovering what learners have lost. At the SET conference, Bally touched upon the loss of educational spaces that enabled self-identity, and Ken discussed the loss of more practical Further Education pathways, specifically apprenticeships and vocational subjects. Evidently, young people have missed lots of subject-specific teaching and learning, but there is a broader sense of loss in what is less measurable, such as life and study skills, and pro-social behaviours. Young people have missed out on guided education during a significant period of development where they’re not just learning things, but they’re learning how to learn, and how to become independent learners and functioning members of society.

All of the aforementioned aspects of recovery are within the province of the FE sector. We have a vital role to play in all of these facets of recovery, which are intrinsically linked with each other and with the wider complexities of the ongoing pandemic.

Positive reflections

In what can feel like a bleak dialogue of overwhelming challenges, it’s important to reflect on the encouraging range of effective practices that have kept the FE sector moving forwards. The pandemic has forced everyone to pause and reflect, including our learners, some of whom seem to have gained more clarity and intent on what to do with their lives, and are thinking more intentionally about their next steps into the future.

Furthermore, our teachers have become more creative, adaptive, and inclusive in their approach to virtual learning. They have been immensely challenged during this period of transformation, but positively so. Thanks to the digital spaces we have created, there has been an upsurge in professional exchange and virtual meetings that transcend geographical boundaries, where practitioners can share practice and problem-solving. Throughout the pandemic, SET saw a continued rise in membership numbers. This is a testament to the appetite for professional development and knowledge exchange, despite it being a time of great insecurity. This collaborative innovation is how the FE sector must continue to succeed.

Act local, think global

During our discussion, this idea of innovation through collaboration within FE and beyond was unanimously agreed upon as a way to address the various facets of recovery. As Ken said: “The FE sector has a unique contribution to make, but we can’t make it by ourselves. We have to work with others in the local space and step forward to collaborate with local government, employers, training providers or civil society organisations, to address the gaps and the losses discussed, so we can begin the process of building back better. Collaboration in the local space is key.”

One of the mantras of the current environment movement is to ‘Act local, think global’, which can be applied to FE as well. Collaboration in the local space is vital, as Ken confirmed, but also national collaboration. Across the public sphere, from health and social care, to housing and employment, there are agendas that cannot be fulfilled without that the active involvement of the FE and training system. In this sense, our sector’s role is more important than it’s ever been.

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