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Post-Covid: Building a resilient education system

A report into the pandemic experiences of primary schools offers some stern and direct messages which the government should heed we are to truly Build Back Better. Suzanne O’Connell reports

A survey conducted by UCL Institute of Education asked schools about their experiences during the pandemic (Moss et al, 2021). The resulting report delivers some stern and direct messages for government.

The report – Learning through Disruption – is subtitled “Using schools’ experiences of Covid to build a more resilient education system”. The survey itself was carried out between May and August 2021 and used a case study design with a focus on areas of deprivation. Seven case study primary schools were selected.

The study set out to identify how primary schools had been dealing with the many, wide-ranging impacts of Covid and included 50 in-depth interviews with headteachers, teachers and other members of staff and parents.

The focus was on exploring the experiences of schools during the pandemic and listening to what they had to say. The report is divided into four sections:

  • School responses to local community needs during the pandemic.
  • The role of headteachers and school staff in managing the crisis.
  • School priorities for recovery in the summer term of 2021.
  • Lessons learnt from the pandemic for primary education in England.

School responses

The findings clearly demonstrate the differences between families and communities. Particularly hard hit were those who were already experiencing poverty and family difficulties prior to the pandemic as well as those who found themselves suddenly struggling financially. What was evident was that the experience for many schools was diverse and could be hugely affected by just one local community factor, such as the closure of a major local employer.

Food insecurity was a priority identified by schools. A new group of needy had emerged who were above the official poverty line but had been furloughed. It was clear that schools recognised the need to make sure that children were fed while also expressing the view that it was not really their role to take on.

But take it on they did. Consequently, many schools became more aware of the impact that poverty had on their families and the conditions they were living in. This was even the case where the majority of families were affluent.

The report explains: “In many instances, schools were stepping in to fill gaps where access to other crucial services had weakened, and where no one else was available to support a child or family in crisis.”

It adds: “That families are so reliant on schools highlights fundamental weaknesses in our current welfare system that urgently need repair.”

The demands of remote learning put pressure on schools and strategies changed over time. They encountered issues such as:

  • The need for physical space in the home.
  • Poor access to technology.
  • Parents managing different age groups at the same time.
  • Parents working while also overseeing school work.
  • Parental confidence and experience with the learning topics.
  • Children’s willingness to engage.

Initially many schools were providing paper packs of work due to the shortage of devices thanks to the notoriously slow roll-out of the government-funded free laptops, but by January 2021 the number of laptops and tablets available had increased.

A patchwork of provision emerged and changed as the pandemic progressed. Initial stages focused on simply what was possible in the circumstances. Later stages included a firmer foundation following the initial trial and error.

The role of school staff

What was evident was that headteachers felt that they were left without clear guidance and were having to make difficult decisions with the minimum of information or support. This guidance was often released late at night without proper alerts or indication as to what had changed.

Sometimes schools learnt of new developments from the news. They would then be contacted by parents who were expecting more detailed advice and information.

Heads mentioned receiving support from local authorities, their academy trusts, union groups and dioceses. The informal sharing of information and ideas between schools was also helpful in filtering through guidance. Often it was the local links that headteachers had already established that helped to fill the vacuum from the national guidance.

It is clear that headteachers were under a huge amount of stress and long-term implications of this are expected, including resignations and early retirement. According to the report: “Being a headteacher appeared at times an isolated role, highly pressured and operating in a state of substantial uncertainty.”

School priorities

The importance of wellbeing became even clearer as pupils returned to the classroom. It was evident that in the hierarchy of needs, student welfare had to be secured before they would be ready and able to learn.

Less priority was given to plugging gaps in learning: “The idea of ‘catch-up’, imagined as a tight focus on meeting pre-pandemic targets expressed in test scores, was not a priority for any of our interviewees, staff or parents.”

One interviewee told the researchers: “We’re not saying we’re going to focus on their wellbeing to the detriment of the academic. We’re saying we’re going to focus on their wellbeing to ensure that we can focus on the academic.”

Schools varied as to what they identified as their curriculum priorities. For some it was reading and writing, for others it was maths. One school mentioned the need for drama work and another outdoor play. For schools with high numbers of EAL it was speaking and listening in English that they felt pupils had missed out on most.

There seemed to be a general reluctance to engage with the National Tutoring Programme (NTP), often because it involved hiring someone unfamiliar with the school. There was greater take up from schools who were able to hire tutors that they already knew.

As pupils were welcomed back, the lack of access to specialist services became acute. References were made to a backlog at CAMHS and the frustration of having serious cases that did not seem to be prioritised. To attempt to address this, schools have bought in their own support including:

  • Weekly drop-ins from a multi-agency support team.
  • Therapy sessions from Place2Be.
  • In-house counsellors.

The report adds: “Our data suggest there is a case for increased funding for schools to provide for the manifold educational, poverty and pastoral challenges they are dealing with, but this also needs to be accompanied by readily accessible provision of statutory specialist services.”

The report is clear that the priorities of schools and government were not aligned: “Schools’ priorities in recovery differ significantly from the government’s – their voices should be heard.”

Lessons learned

Schools indicated that some changes they made during the pandemic would be retained. These included staggered entry times, lunches in classrooms, online parents’ evenings, and more innovative use of digital platforms.

The survey suggested that both schools and parents knew more about each other. With schools having supported so many families in the home and families having engaged with remote learning.

Less positive, the inspection regime seemed to be even more out of kilter with schools’ experiences.

The report states: “At the very least there was a sense that Ofsted inspectorate had very little grasp of the complex problems schools had been struggling with on so many fronts.”


The report is clear that each setting is different and as such how schools spend any money available for Covid recovery needs to be in their control. There are three recommendations:

  1. Schools operating in areas of high disadvantage need substantially more generous funding to address those aspects of poverty that directly impact on children’s education.
  2. Schools need time to reflect on what has been learnt at the frontline during the crisis and share the knowledge gained.
  3. Education needs a fully costed investment plan for the longer term rather than short-term “catch-up” initiatives with insufficient funding committed to address real needs.

The report recommends that the government should audit the welfare and wellbeing demands schools have had to meet during the Covid crisis and establish a profession-led discussion to identify where funding is needed and what mitigation strategies have worked.

The researchers suggest that collecting test data in 2021/22 will not provide reliable information and will not help close learning gaps. Instead, they prefer the idea of recovery funding for teacher-led knowledge sharing in local networks.

The report questions the effectiveness of a system that leaves schools addressing welfare problems: “School heads find themselves shouldering significant responsibilities within networks of support that have themselves fragmented. This diminishes resilience.”

According to the report, it is time the government listened to schools and focused on building resilience in the long term: “Recovery from Covid is a long-term process not a short-term sprint.

“The current settlement on offer is not enough to fix the many issues the school system in England faces and which Covid has so sharply revealed.”

  • Suzanne O’Connell is a freelance education writer and a former primary school headteacher.

Further information & resources

  • Moss et al: Learning through Disruption: Using schools’ experiences of Covid to build a more resilient education system, UCL Institute of Education, October 2021: