Has technology helped Primary Schools face the challenges of Covid-19?

26 October 2020 / Pete Atherton

Allow me to get back to basics.

We work in education because we want to support and encourage children to make the best of themselves. We want to be an essential part of the wider community.

Numerous factors make the job difficult: workload, Ofsted, budget constraints, certain parents. Sadly, Covid19 is now a constant presence. With all the issues that we are facing at the moment in education, we’d like to think that technology isn’t one of them. We expect technology to be an enabler. Not an inhibitor.

In this blog post, I will be looking at some questions that came out of a recent school improvement webinar. I will also summarise a conversation that I had with the wonderful Simon Sloan, who is the Senior Advisor in School Performance at the Diocese of Leeds. The overarching questions are: how can technology support Primary Schools? What are the barriers?

Make a wish

If you could wave a magic wand, what magic spells would you want to cast - apart from the obvious one? In an ideal world, what kind of magic would you like edtech to do in your school or Multi Academy Trust (MAT)?

One of the issues that I will be debating here is this: the technology itself is frequently seen as a magic bullet. If pupils are taken out of school, technology will help them. This is, however complex at best and naïve at worst, especially in light of the Department for Education’s (DfE) in the UK severely scaling down their commitment to providing laptops to the areas of greatest need.

Don’t get me started on that.

The reality on the ground

OK, maybe a little bit, then. In the week when hundreds of ministers voted against extending free school meals for the most deprived children into the school holidays, hundreds of head teachers learned that the number of laptops that they would be given had been reduced by around 80%. What’s more, for many families, whose financial situation has worsened since Covid, the choice is between paying for broadband or paying for food. When economic disparities grow, inequality infiltrates every corner of life. The digital divide is of one many symptoms of inequality – not the cause of it.

If more disadvantaged children cannot participate in learning from home, there are similar problems within schools and these are affecting all pupils and staff.

A Covid curriculum?

To Simon Sloan, Covid-19 is a double-edged sword. While the initial lockdown enabled schools to engage more deeply with curriculum development, the pandemic now takes up so much time that conversations about teaching and learning are in danger of taking a back seat.

When schools had to get serious about blended learning, they were also forced into rethinking their entire curriculum. The vexed question of curriculum provision led to more intentional planning. Despite the enormity of the situation, there were some benefits. Teachers were forced into even more urgent conversations about teaching and learning; they needed to be even more creative than usual in the quest to support their pupils and provide a meaningful educational experience, in the absence of a normal school day.

Covid planning, though, is immensely time-consuming. When the national lockdown was eased and children returned to school, there was no longer time to plan. At senior level, the job of leadership became pretty much full-time Covid management.

The mental health of teachers and managers

One of the emerging mental health issues arising from Covid has been a sense of cognitive dissonance: teachers are driven by, passionate about and dedicated to inspiring young minds, creating opportunities, supporting children’s development. From the autumn term of 2020, they were forced to do something else. That something took them away from what was creating meaning and fulfilment in their job. This is not good for their mental health. What is even more worrying is that there has not been time to reflect, to take stock of this potential mental health time bomb.

Learning culture

The teacher plays a significant part in creating the learning culture. What happens, though, when the learning is increasingly home-based, as it has been forced to be since lockdown?

There have been many scattergun solutions proposed. Millions of pounds have been awarded in contracts and grants to edtech companies to provide free online resources to schools. As we said earlier, thousands of laptops have been distributed - with varying levels of success - to pupils who are on the wrong side of the digital divide.

Let’s imagine, then how this works at ground level. A Primary School child (insert a suitable name here) is taken out of school during lockdown in March 2020. They have the opportunity to travel to a local childcare hub for children of key workers but the parents aren’t key workers. The school has their own online learning platform that is integrated into MIS. The parents are ill-equipped to home school the child and the broadband connection means that any online learning is slow and lacking in continuity.

The learning culture, then, comes not from the devices or the online games, tests, happy videos or Zoom calls. It comes from the culture in the home. What if our child (the suitable name of whom you have already inserted) has no idea at all about how to learn on their own, online, isolated and with minimal parental intervention?

How do I learn with the tech?

As Simon Sloan argues, home learning is more about the culture in the home and less about the devices themselves. Recent research by the Ambition Institute discussed the benefits of remote learning that has been tailored to learners’ needs. This learning could be through books, apps, collaborative documents, online games and so on. It could also be books.

Teachers can help change the home learning culture.

They could do this by removing pedagogical barriers. One of these is over-complex task design. Simple, clear, logical, purposeful tasks will teach children how they should be learning. This is truly empowering and goes further than a great deal of existing online teaching (as opposed to online learning). Teaching pupils to manage their own learning establishes new patterns and behaviour that can be modelled and shared by staff. Teachers may also have to rethink how they collaborate on their use of data.

Potentially, one cat that is out of the bag is more purposeful learning.

In the next post, I will return to my conversation with Simon Sloan and I’ll also develop some of the Ambition Institute’s research. I’ll also begin summarising a conversation with Adam Gough, a Primary Deputy Head and Assessment lead