COVID has put the world’s education systems through a test by fire. In-school learning went out the window in many countries around the globe, as schools scrambled to deploy various technologies to continue learning, some more successfully than others.
The already existing challenges within education have become a lot more visible with the global pandemic. The antiquated educational models, lack of qualified teachers, and stark differences in access to ICT across social classes are suddenly out in the open.
Of course, not all countries or regions face the challenges equally, but today we are, nonetheless, looking at some of the biggest challenges to functioning education today.
In the latest PISA ratings, run by the OECD and based on tests taken by 15-year-olds across the world the UK is a long way from the top.
The UK is ranked 27th in maths – the lowest we have been ranked since joining the tests in 2000. The UK has made a slight improvement in our ranking in science (although not in test score) climbing to 15th place and is ranked 22nd in reading.
It isn’t only when measured against other countries that we are failing.
In secondary schools:
By the end of primary:
That’s a quite remarkable failure rate given the hours and years that these children have poured into these topics. Perhaps it is time to admit that the system itself is broken?
But what is causing it to be broken? Let us take a look at some of the biggest challenges faced by primary and secondary schools in the UK, and how we could help.
Underfunding is one of the biggest challenges in education. It is also one that gives rise to a host of other problems. In the past 2 years, school resources have been spread very thin because of the pandemic. Income from leasing out school facilities and venues has been lost and additional expenditures have been incurred on Covid essentials including PPE, cleaning supplies, signage, and digital equipment.
Despite the education sector’s expectations, the government’s £1.4 billion Covid Catch-up budget for schools turned out to be less than 10% of the £15 billion recommended by the education recovery commissioner for England.
And this is hardly exceptional.
91% of schools are due to lose out under the government’s latest school funding proposals. They have already been cut by £2.8bn since 2015, and head teachers regularly speak about the impossible job they face to balance the books and offer a great education to all of their pupils.
According to the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS), school spending per pupil in England fell by 9% in real terms between 2009-10 and 2019-20, the largest cut in over 40 years. Underfunding has been an ongoing issue in education for years. Schools with budget deficits fall into disrepair and are left to decide what to keep and what to discard given the limited resources. All these issues are compounded by the fact that class sizes keep growing.
Since 2010, there has been a 258% rise in the number of secondary pupils in classes of 36 or more. In more extreme cases, school hours have to be reduced to save costs, with students being asked to come in late or go home early.
According to a London Councils survey in 2017, 42% of schools had cut teaching staff in order to save cost. Curriculum breadth is often reduced, with languages, computing, design, technology, and music most affected. Valuable programmes such as support for children with special education needs are also compromised.
This is partly a result of the budget deficit, as underfunded schools are forced to downsize staff. Reducing the number of teaching assistants and teachers as well as cutting learning resources spending are the three most common responses to financial pressure in secondary schools. As a result of the reduced staff, teachers are asked to take on extra duties, from teaching additional subjects and providing lunchtime supervision to cleaning and other tasks. Combined with the growing class size, this increases classroom problems as pupils receive less individual attention from teachers.
Budget cuts aside, the shortage of qualified teachers has been an ongoing challenge. Secondary school teachers in England fell by 7% from 2007 to 2019, while pupil numbers remained the same and are expected to rise as much as 10% by 2023.
Subjects such as maths, science and languages have seen the worst shortages of qualified teachers, as graduates of these subjects are often drawn to jobs other than teaching that offer higher pay, better prospects, and more innovation. After all, both state and independent teachers work an average of 55 hours per week. That could be why as many as half of all teachers of these subjects leave the teaching profession after five years.
Indeed, teacher shortages are particularly severe for inner-city schools, and this is not only a matter of school budget. With students hailing from diverse cultures, religions and socioeconomic groups, extra care and support is needed, which often results in additional workload and stress for teachers.
They are often willing to teach at private schools for lower salaries because the job is easier given the smaller class sizes and students from less complicated backgrounds.
All would agree that a certain number of tests and assessment is necessary to consolidate learning and hold education providers accountable. However, sometimes the effect of constant assessment on both children and teachers is overlooked.
A survey on parents of children in primary schools in England found that most parents are unaware that children undergo statutory tests in five out of seven primary years, which focus largely on English and maths. 73% of parents surveyed agree that children are under too much pressure because of standardised testing. 61% say that their child spent most of their time studying English and maths in preparation for SATs.
In order to achieve good results, it is inevitable that more teaching hours are spent on skills required to score in exams as well as subjects that carry more weight in assessment, and creative and non-academic subjects are often compromised. A survey in 2019 on the effect of SATs reveals that 90% of responding primary school headteachers believe that the curriculum is narrowed to prepare for the tests in Year 6 and 52% agreed it was narrowed in other year groups too. On the whole, 80% of headteachers agree that SATs have a negative effect on pupils’ wellbeing.
Formal assessment also has a negative impact on teachers and schools. Extra workload aside, the pressure of preparing pupils for “the big test” that makes or breaks the future prospects of both the pupils and the school is not to be underestimated.
While most of us are used to the idea of working on computers, classrooms in the minds of many are places where children work with pen and paper and where electronic devices are a distraction. It was during the pandemic that we realised how the lack of access to technology is affecting their learning, and how far schools are behind in preparing children for a future driven by technology.
A 2020 survey conducted for Lenovo on teachers across the UK found that 65% of teachers want more training to utilise existing technology, and nearly 70% believe more computers are needed for students, with London reporting an average of 11 students sharing a computer at school. More than a quarter of schools do not offer extra-curricular opportunities to develop digital skills!
While there are learning resources for different age groups online and schools had to take lessons online during the Covid lockdowns and self-isolation, many low-income families could not afford laptops and Wi-Fi connection for their children.
Another survey published by Microsoft in 2020 found that just 1% of primary state schools provide devices that their pupils can take home, compared with 38% of private primary schools. At secondary level, 7% of secondary state schools provide take home devices, while 20% of private secondary schools do so. As such, the digital divide is putting the poorest pupils at a disadvantage and contributing to the attainment gap between rich and poor children in the UK.
Inequality is arguably the most pressing current issue in education today and a culmination of all the problems mentioned above. Whilst the performance gap between pupils from advantaged and disadvantaged backgrounds has narrowed slightly (around 4%) over the past decade, it remains significant. Due to the lack of resources both at school and at home in deprived regions, children from low-income families or with special education needs are more severely affected by these problems than more affluent students.
Schools in deprived areas face more difficulty in recruiting qualified teachers and have smaller budgets for electronic equipment. Disadvantaged children also lack the home learning environment enjoyed by their peers, a crucial factor contributing to the learning gap that had widened by 46% over the school closures during the pandemic. In the long term the attainment gap between the rich and the poor can be life changing.
Poorer students in sixth forms and colleges trail their more affluent peers by an average of three A-Level grades when taking qualifications at this level. And only 21% pupils from low-income families go to university, compared with 85% of pupils from private schools.
Although significant efforts have been made over the years to narrow the education gap, a lot remains to be done. The Education Policy Institute (EPI) argues that the government’s commitment to “level-up” funding, contrary to what it sounds like, directs additional funding towards schools that historically receive less funding because they are in more affluent areas with fewer disadvantaged pupils eligible for additional funding. In 2020, schools serving more deprived pupils in England have already seen the largest falls in spending per pupil over the last decade. The government’s new National Funding Formula will deliver funding increases of 3 to 4% less to schools in poorer areas than to those in more affluent areas up to 2021.
One of the most exciting new directions in education is the proliferation of personalised education. Educators are developing customised learning experiences to fit the learning style of each student. Of course, personalised learning has been the goal of great teachers for centuries. It is just that emerging technologies are finally making these techniques possible in classrooms around the world.
Up until recently, education was very teacher centred. The knowledge of the educator in the classroom effectively limited what could be learned. These days, this is no longer the case.
The internet is a vast database of information that can be used both in and outside of the classroom. Of course, many schools around the world are incorporating this goldmine of knowledge in their programmes, but, perhaps more inspiringly, students themselves are taking initiative. The internet still remains a source of entertainment and socialisation, but emerging trends show reason to be hopeful:
The Internet of Things holds remarkable potential in terms of building smarter, more connected schools. Not only does it help in saving money in terms of energy, but it also helps to keep students and schools safer and more connected.
In addition, students can share their assignments, for example how to make a resume in English, with their parents through real-time communication tools, enabling them to stay on top of schoolwork. These technologies can also help parents to know when their children are absent from class.
With such a wealth of online tools, security is a priority for most parents and educators. The online world is certainly full of dubious people and content, some of it downright harmful.
As these issues are being brought to the foreground, questions of security become increasingly important. Luckily, the options for keeping your devices and data are also catching up. Technologies such as two-factor authentication and blockchain are currently still very seldom used in schools but as most of the world moves online, we can expect that to change in the coming years.
Another amazing thing about technology is that it makes knowledge and information easy to access despite someone’s capability to read it. This is evident for text-to-voice and voice-to-text transcription technologies which benefit students with dyslexia and other learning challenges. Incorporating these solutions to school lessons can mean that all students are engaged and able to benefit from each lesson. It can also lead to less segregated lessons in general, leading to better results for children with learning difficulties.
To tackle the difficulty with teacher recruitment, a new strategy called the Early Career Framework aims to recruit 30,000 new teachers a year and give extra support to the 450,000 current ones. Championing new and veteran teaching talent, facilitating more job-shares, and simplifying the application process are some of the ways they will try to achieve that.
Geared towards addressing the attainment gap is a new school ranking system called Progress 8. Started in 2017, this is a system that ranks schools by measuring pupils’ progress from the end of primary school to the end of secondary school, instead of just by exam results. It’s caused some controversy with teachers who claim it encourages them to focus more on higher achieving pupils than those who struggle. This is because the final ranking also takes into account pupils’ attainment. The school will get more points if the pupil improves from a 7 grade to a 9, for example, than from a 2 to a 3.
Another system in place with the view to tackling both teacher recruitment and the attainment gap is a fantastic initiative called TeachFirst.
Started in 2002, it’s a charity that works directly with the government, providing top university graduates with a two-year teacher training programme where they work in schools that are particularly struggling. Working from the central ethos of improving educational equality across the UK, by filling teaching posts in under-supported parts of the country, they help boost the nationwide teaching standard and balance out some of the geographical attainment gap.
The challenges for education across UK seem to be on a very much downward curve. However, the continued improved attitude to technology and the pandemic which forced a lot of schools to embrace digital learning platforms and the technology to allow them to do this, there is hope at the end of the tunnel.
With the cohesion of government support, improved recruitment methods, listening to teachers to prevent burnout and disillusion with teaching as a career, the embrace of technology, and listening students. Just maybe we can become the education powerhouse we were not too long ago. Where learning is inclusive, accessible, and focused on preparing students for their career and the real world, rather than being the corporate, KPI and exam driven machine.