Blog 32. COVID-19: the pandemic exposing the English education system

By Ellie Grout


Something quite profound has happened in light of the coronavirus pandemic: national and localised lockdowns, distance and blended learning, and (understandable) issues with attendance of both students and staff have all shed light on the desperate need for us to address educational transitions with urgency.


If you keep a keen eye on the media, it would be easy to assume that disruptions to education have had terrifying and major costs for young people. Lockdown 1 has been blamed for children forgetting how to use knives and forks, children ‘regressing in basic skills and learning’ (Ofsted, 2020) and a loss of physical fitness; the implication within the media is broadly that schools and their response to lockdown are where the blame ought to lie here. Nationally, there is a lot of anger amongst the teaching profession for the lack of recognition of the long hours and hard work that have been ongoing since March 2020, and the fact that many media outlets have called for such things as recovery curriculums, longer school hours, and working weekends.


The most recent partial school closures, which ended on the 8th of March, have been a myriad of confusion: complaints of too many online lessons, not enough online lessons, claims that live lessons are the most effective and yet simultaneously are not the most effective, teachers burnt out and exhausted yet also critiqued for being on Twitter during the school day or daring to bake whilst at home, skyrocketing statistics of headteachers leaving their posts – and the list goes on. The media now obsesses over an elusive concept of ‘catch up’, which itself is riddled with problems I shan’t go into!


On the 30th October 2020, in particular, a mass of headlines flooded newsreels claiming that Year 7s (first year of secondary school in England) are drastically behind where they ought to be in terms of their educational progress, and that they are, in fact, going backwards: what a terrifying thought! Inevitably, sensationalism picked such statements up and ran with them, immediately blaming partial school closures across England before the summer break. The source? No More Marking.


No More Marking, if you’re unfamiliar with it, is an initiative which exists to reduce the difficulties, time constraints, inevitable bias, and other complications related to the marking of writing. The concept is one I highly commend and am thrilled to see such a process already having national impact: I look forward to the inevitable resources and outcomes that continue to come from the programme. Whilst the generation of the fear-mongering headlines regarding Year 7 students going backwards is based in Daisy Christodoulou’s (Director of Education for No More Marking) blog, and subsequent tweets resulting from the report regarding the Year 7 baseline assessment, the evidence she outlines – if you actually read her blog – paints a rather different picture.


What is undeniably shocking is that the outcomes from the Year 7 assessed group are in line with the outcomes from Year 5 students who completed the same task in 2019. Evidently, something is happening between these two points in time that is resulting in an apparent (or real) lack of progress. Christodoulou makes a key distinction: ‘Year 7 pupils are 22 months behind where we would expect them to be’ based on a trajectory of academic progress. Not – as has been widely reported – that students had regressed in their writing ability. Rightfully, she highlights that the examples of writing from Year 7 students tends to show the basic blocks of good writing, but that the pieces usually had more errors and inconsistencies. She also notes that we shouldn’t ‘expect that this regression will permanently hold students back…when you have learnt something and forgotten it, you can relearn it in less time than it took the first time.’


So what could be the underlying cause, or more likely – causes, of this phenomenon?


Transitions between systems of education

The move to remote education is undoubtedly a contender. Approaches to teaching and learning have had to adapt overnight, essentially. An entire profession has had to learn to teach remotely, whilst still upholding standards of safeguarding, assessment, progress checks, wellbeing support, and the countless other tasks schools contend with on a daily basis. Perhaps this is the universe’s way of pulling our still-reminiscent-of-the-1800s education system into the modern day and if written outcomes from Year 7 students falter somewhat, it’s not really surprising.


‘Typical’ primary-secondary transition

Obviously other things have happened between Years 5-7 – not just corona. Getting used to the standard challenges of primary to secondary transition (a different way of learning/timetables/curriculum change/puberty, etc) has been used to perpetuate what many deem a dangerous narrative about school ‘closures’ and remote learning. Students have also experienced a rarity: two simultaneous and major educational transitions combined with immeasurable personally experienced transitions as the entire world tries to tackle an invisible disease.


Academic, curricular and pedagogical transition between primary and secondary schools

Primaries and secondaries tend to approach planning and assessment in very different ways. This is easily observed by visiting English lessons from each phase, or even by browsing curricular handbooks for each phase, few of which, in English at least, (perhaps with the exception of Alex Quigley’s The Reading Gap and The Vocabulary Gap) are used in both phases – a clear marker of the lack of continuity between primary  and secondary education. If a student has been trained to plan a story in a certain way throughout Year 6, and then is confronted with a seemingly random method in Year 7, it would not be a surprise if their work was of a lower standard than if they had used methods well-known to them. The same applies if there is not a shared language relating to the subject in both phases, or if the structures around assessment differ.


Research, especially that which is current, into curricular transitions is lacking

In fact, research specifically into transitions, rather than research which happens to stumble across findings that may be relevant to transitions in education, is lacking. Amidst a confident move in the teaching profession towards evidence-informed approaches, primary to secondary transition is an area in which it is almost impossible to do this! Without a solid grounding in evidence, what is happening academically with students during one of the biggest changes most of them will have experienced in their lives is largely undocumented. Neither are the relationships between academic attainment, retention of knowledge, differing curricula and pedagogic approaches, well-being, amongst other things. So it’s easy to jump to conclusions and rule out these issues when some juicy data appears to imply that – just when the coronavirus is in town and schools are partially closed – Year 7 students are regressing. It’s important here to note that No More Marking has no prior data for Year 7s, so it will be interesting to see if there is a level of consistency in their data in the coming years.


Whilst these possible reasons are varied and far-reaching, they are entirely concerned with transitions that take place annually anyway. We are familiar with the ‘Year 8 attainment dip’; we are familiar with secondary schools inputted ‘baseline assessments’ because data from primary schools is not trusted; we are familiar with the automatic reaction of screwing our faces up when we read the written work of a student who purportedly was working at ‘Greater Depth’ in Year 6 and yet has produced a piece littered with basic errors. These issues are not new and they are the product of, in my opinion, a dangerously underserved area of England’s education system: transition.


For want of another way to view the situation, consider the following: you spend 7 years being taught how to make a burger – you might learn how to make the dough, knead it, leave it to rise, how to make different buns, how to prepare the beef, season it, make it into a patty, which vegetables and sauces make for the best flavour combinations, and so on – and by the end of the 7th year, you can make a damn good burger. Then, you have a 6 week break, before you begin as a student elsewhere, and your teachers know you can already make a decent burger, and suddenly you need to make a burger, two different sides, a well paired starter and dessert, and a fancy milkshake and you need to know how to carry 5 plates at a time and how to serve customers and how to tidy away at the end of service and do the books at the end of a shift. Now what is the likelihood, that the first time you attempt this, you make a sub-par burger that isn’t as good as you know you’re capable of? This is how our education system works in England; you spend primary school mastering the “basics” (no mean feat!) and when you arrive at secondary school, you are plunged into different systems, subjects and content. Instead of starting every day with a literacy focus with the resources you are used to relying on and member(s) of staff who know precisely when to remind you to include a colon or to start a sentence with an adverb, or how to engage you in a topic by linking it to their incredible knowledge of you as a person, you start your day in any one of 12 different classrooms, with any one of 12 different teachers, with any one of 12 different groups of peers, before commencing on any one of 12 different subjects. And, for the first few weeks at least, no one can remember if you’re Tom, Dick or Harry. There is a chance that your new English teacher will use the same subject terminology as your Year 6 teacher, or that they will have the same useful resources around the room, or that they will ask you to plan your writing in the same way, but the chance is slim because primary and secondary education are disparate systems that have not been designed to fit together seamlessly. Add to this that your modus operandi has shifted to making friends and making sense of the new social hierarchy and it really is no wonder at all that No More Marking has provided evidence that Year 7 writing is less polished than the work they produced in year 6.


Interestingly, in the last NMM blog of 2020, Christodoulou summarised the findings of cumulative data which shows that Year 3 outcomes have remained largely the same over time, whilst Year 5 outcomes have also ‘regressed’. Despite my diatribe against stating Year 7 have gone backwards, we cannot rule out the effects of the coronavirus, as shown by the Year 5 data, however we must remove the blinkers that have enabled major flaws in KS2-3 transition to be upheld for so long.


I venture that the education system itself is experiencing a notable transition; as with any change, there is fear, and many are reluctant to embrace the possibilities that lie before us – namely, the press. What is proving to be the case here, is that there is a staunch adversity to change and a matter of clinging with the utmost desperation to redundant methods and structures of education; instead of recognising the huge value of the vast amounts of data coming in relation to the pandemic, and the opportunities this poses for effecting change to truly improve our education system, fear is driving the current narrative to return to the relative safety of systems we now unavoidably know are flawed.


Ellie Grout is based in Bristol, UK, and is an EdD student at the University of the West of England (UWE); co-lead of the annual TransitionEd Conference; editor of Transition Talks magazine; and Lead Tutor and Owner of Grouty’s Guide SEND Specialist Services.


Image copyright: Divya Jindal-Snape

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