Adrian Zancajo, Antoni Verger, Pedro Bolea
The Covid-19 pandemic is the most significant disruption most national education systems have experienced since their modern institutionalisation globally. During the first wave of the pandemic, between February and June 2020, 197 countries closed their schools and universities, and around 85% of primary to tertiary education students were out of school at some point in this period (UNESCO, 2021; World Bank, 2020). Beyond the significant impact of the first wave, the continuous ups and downs of the pandemic have led to intermittent school closures in numerous countries during the past two years. National governments’ short-term policy responses prioritised the continuity of the academic year, mainly through the adoption of remote forms of teaching and learning, and plans to reopen schools and universities with safety.
More than two years after the start of the pandemic, to what extent the Covid-19 crisis can lead to structural changes in the education sector is still an open question. Different international organisations, national governments and policy entrepreneurs have considered the pandemic a game-changer in education, particularly in the area of the digitalisation of teaching and learning. Indeed, the large dimension and nature of the Covid-19 crisis make the paradigm change hypothesis plausible. In education, the pandemic has operated as a dual crisis, in the sense that it has brought together a strong exogenous shock with an endogenous type of emergency. On the one hand, the Covid-19 pandemic has clearly altered the conditions of educational delivery, while it has also generated profound health, social and economic problems. New expectations are put in education systems to addressing emerging educational and non-educational problems. Nevertheless, many consider that, for education to have such restorative power, it needs to be reformed. On the other hand, the pandemic has also evidenced the limitations of current educational systems in providing quality education under exceptional conditions, and it has contributed to making existing educational problems more tangible (namely, educational inequalities, insufficient or inappropriate facilities within the system, dated teaching skills, policy coordination issues, etc.). This deficit perspective has also been used as a major reform argument.
Despite this context being conducive to a drastic change in educational policies, we also know that national education systems are complex and resilient institutions, in which paradigm changes tend to be challenging. Educational systems are multi-layered, involve a big number of stakeholders that are not easy to coordinate when it comes to provoking structural changes, and even some of them have the power and capacity to veto policy changes that call into question the status quo. Furthermore, the knowledge and expectations of key educational actors are tied to long-standing institutional arrangements, which is another barrier to radical change in the sector. Thus, while it is evident that the pandemic has had significant impacts on the education sector, it is still not clear to what extent these impacts will produce which type of change.
Based on a paper we have recently published, in this post, we analyse what reform interventions both international organisations and EU countries are proposing as a response to the impacts of the crisis, and to what extent these interventions can mean drastic changes for national education systems.
Policy priorities in the aftermath of the pandemic
From the analysis of recovery plans presented by EU countries in the context of the Next Generation funding scheme, it is possible to identify three main areas of reform in the education sector: digitalisation, inequalities and teachers.
The digitalisation of educational systems
There is no doubt that the Covid-19 crisis has accelerated the process of educational digitalisation and the expansion of the Ed-Tech industry in education systems, removing many of the barriers that had previously hindered its progress (e.g., public scrutiny, lack of public investment, low teacher acceptance). Despite various challenges, the first wave of the pandemic represented an opportunity for Ed-Tech companies to gain millions of users by negotiating emergency contracts with educational institutions and offering free access to their products (Williamson & Hogan, 2020).
In the aftermath of the pandemic, the policy recommendations of international organisations and the policy responses included in national recovery plans have consolidated the process of educational digitalisation in two directions. On the one hand, through the technological resourcing of schools (e.g., provision of broadband connectivity in schools, digital equipment in classrooms, devices for students, etc.). On the other, through the development of digital skills of teachers and students (e.g., digital skills training for teachers, the introduction of digital skills in curricula, etc.). These policies are justified, as depicted in strategic plans like the EU’s Digital Education Action Plan 2021 – 2027, to reduce the stark digital divides among teachers and students – evident during school closure periods – and adapt the education systems to increasingly digitalised economies.
EU countries’ policies for the long term build on long-established models of digital policy in education (Selwyn, 2018), and bear a clear resemblance to the rationale behind the national education ICT plans of the 1990s and early 2000s. These policies seek to increase the use of technology in schools, so as to achieve future success in the global knowledge economy and increase equity in the education sector (Zhao et al., 2006). Although this time digitalisation policies are being adopted with unprecedented speed and consensus, it is yet to be seen to what extent digital technologies will become the centre of teachers’ work, or they will rather just become another instrument available to teachers within a much broader set of educational resources.
The second most relevant area in the global debate about the effects of the pandemic in the education sector has been educational inequalities. International organisations and national governments have warned about the learning loss experienced by socially disadvantaged students mainly due to the closure of educational institutions during the pandemic. The evidence available to date also shows that learning losses have particularly affected socially disadvantaged students, significantly increasing the learning gap between these students and their more affluent peers (Blainey et al., 2020; Engzell et al., 2020; Maldonado & De Witte, 2020). Indeed, just after the first wave of the pandemic, different countries (e.g., England, the Netherlands, Chile, Portugal, and France) announced special catch-up programmes targeted at those students more affected by the learning losses (OECD, 2021).
The exacerbation of educational inequalities because of the Covid-19 crisis was already pointed out by the OECD, UNESCO and European institutions as one of the main challenges for national education systems in the aftermath of the pandemic. These international organisations have expressed their concern about the long-term impact of learning losses on increasing drop-outs and early school leaving of disadvantaged students (European Council, 2020; OECD, 2021, 2020; UNESCO, 2021). Even international organisations like the OECD consider the crisis as an opportunity to develop policies that mean a departing change in terms of how education systems deal with structural social inequalities (OECD, 2020).
Although the centrality acquired by educational inequalities in the debate about the effects of the pandemic, the policy proposals included in the EU countries’ recovery plans do not indicate a significant change regarding the traditional pro-equity policies that have characterised the European education strategies in the past two decades. These policy proposals include expanding the access of disadvantaged children to early childhood education; promoting personalised education and compensatory policies in primary and secondary education, and strengthening and improving vocational education to provide more educational opportunities to students at risk of drop-out.
Teachers’ working conditions and well-being
Teaching has been a profession severely affected by the conditions generated by the pandemic. The crisis has not only altered the everyday work of teachers, but also raised issues of psychological wellbeing (Mari et al., 2021). It has also manifested the need to update teachers’ training in different areas, especially in relation to digital skills. In fact, the most relevant international organisations in European education have approached teachers’ policy mainly from the perspective of teachers’ in-service training. Both the OECD and the EU consider that the pandemic has demonstrated the need to upskill teachers regarding two main areas: first, motivational and emotional competences to strengthen educational systems’ resilience and, second, digital skills to adapt teaching to increasingly digitalised learning environments.
The OECD has put special emphasis on the contribution of teachers to system resilience. To this organisation, teachers’ in-service training should enable teachers to ‘thrive in changing contexts’ (OECD, 2020: 41). According to this international organisation, in-service teachers’ training in periods of crisis needs to focus on reinforcing attitudes such as ‘learning to learn’, adaptability and collaborative work to find appropriate solutions to emerging problems. The underlying idea here is to encourage teachers to use their autonomy to lead future responses to situations in which conventional teaching and learning processes are disrupted. Although teachers’ and schools’ autonomy have been advocated by international organisations such as the OECD for decades, in the context of the pandemic, teachers’ autonomy has acquired new meanings.
In the national recovery plans submitted to the EU, teachers’ policy is basically conflated to updating teachers’ digital skills. The emphasis on teacher training centred on the acquisition of digital skills is constant in all the national plans. This option tends to be justified because of the poor levels of digitalisation in the educational system (or the poor country performance in international large-scale assessments. Several countries also plan to invest in teachers, affording them better access to personal and mobile digital devices. The exception is Denmark, which omits education digitalisation and teachers’ digital skills in its post-Covid-19 recovery strategy, probably because this country has already a high level of digitalisation. Overall, the policy initiatives to upgrade teachers’ digital skills seem more instrumental than final. Here, teacher training aims to ensure that the expected benefits of ongoing public investments in the digitalisation of schools are not blocked by the insufficient knowledge and/or little disposition of teachers in enacting digital education.
To conclude: Educational policy in the post-pandemic era
It is still early to assess the long-term policy effects of the pandemic in the education sector. While the capacity of shocks to produce drastic transformations in education is well documented, education systems are complex, multi-layered and path-dependent institutions. Accordingly, paradigmatic changes tend to be challenging.
From the analysis of international organisations’ discourses and the EU countries’ recovery plans, as a proxy of potential long-term policy responses in the education sector to the Covid-19 pandemic, it is possible to identify two main trends. First, the crisis has become an agenda-setting driver, significantly affecting the priorities of national education systems. The impact of the pandemic has led to a renewed interest in education digitalisation, education inequalities and teachers’ policies. While these three themes have been long debated in the education field, the crisis has placed them at the centre of the policy agenda. This has much to do with the fact that these themes are directly related to the most salient problems during the first stages of the pandemic. Second, although many international organisations and national governments conceived the pandemic crisis as a window of opportunity to challenge the status quo, their policy proposals are not precisely out of the box. At most, policy ideas that have been on the global education agenda for a while – such as the use of ICT in education delivery, compensatory policies to address inequalities or the relationship between teachers’ autonomy and educational quality – have acquired new meanings and centralities.
The capacity of the crisis to produce a paradigmatic change can also be affected because some of the long-term responses proposed have been highly contested by a wide range of educational stakeholders for a while. This is particularly the case of digitalisation initiatives sponsored by big corporations and financial institutions, and the increasing role of the Ed-Tech industry in the education sector not only as a provider, but also as a policy influencer. Once the context of exceptionalism and emergency seems to have ended, it is not clear if the shock produced by the crisis will be strong enough to overcome the suspicion, opposition and resistance that EdTech initiatives usually face, not only in the pilot phase, but especially when they need to be scaled-up.
From our analysis, it derives that, so far, the pandemic is leading to more incremental than paradigmatic types of changes. Incremental changes and trends are particularly evident in the domain of educational digitalisation. The crisis has indeed accelerated the adoption of digitalisation strategies and plans, and meant a significant outlay of public funds on ICT hardware and learning platforms. However, as the pandemic turns back and schools and universities recover their pre-pandemic form of delivery, more doubts arise about the actual scale and paradigmatic nature of this transformation. Hopefully, future research will contribute to addressing this uncertainty.