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By: Mark Leppard

The Coronavirus pandemic has impacted the entire globe, with no country left unscathed. It has impacted trade, travel, politics, hospitality, sport and education. Practically every aspect of modern life has been affected, but in this article, I want to focus on education. 

According to the Secretary of State for Education in the United Kingdom, Gavin Williamson, the impact of the pandemic on education is only being defined by what he terms as the ‘learning gap’. If you look back at the vast majority of his speeches or comments, he mentions the ‘learning gap’ as it relates to the pandemic. However, should there be a concern about this perceived ‘learning gap’? In fact, what does this gap refer to?

The pandemic has meant that there has been significant disruption to the regular education provision due to school closures, distance learning and the cancellation of public examinations in 2020 and 2021. There is a concern for pre-examination years that they may have fallen behind academically due to the disruption. But a question we should be asking is, where have the students fallen behind so that we can clearly understand what this perceived ‘learning gap’ consists of?

If I look at my students and their parents, they are anxious as the message they are receiving from Mr Williamson is that their children have fallen behind. The more we say there is a gap and the more we hammer this message home, the more likely we are to believe it. If something is said convincingly enough and repeatedly, the more we believe it to be true, yet where is the evidence?

Should it not be the responsibility of the Secretary of State for Education to create a positive learning environment where students flourish and feel supported? Why then is he peddling a culture of fear that tells students that they are behind and doomed to a life of failure if nothing is done to rectify this situation? Let’s look at it in terms of a race, not that education should ever be a race to the finish line. A race moves at a certain pace. If the front runners of the race start to accelerate, those behind them either go with them at this faster pace or fall behind, creating a gap. However, if the pace of everyone in the race remains constant, then no gap emerges. If everyone is impacted by the pandemic, surely no gap occurs as they are all moving at the same pace. Gaps do occur, but not from a pandemic. Gaps appear because of better teaching, better support structures around learners and better attitudes to learning. These gaps have existed long before the pandemic and should have been the focus of numerous Secretaries of State for Education, not the red herring thrown out by a pandemic.

It is easy to look at the negatives, of which there may be many, but look at some positive takeaways. There are a group of students who may have flourished through distance learning. A typical school environment, whether this exists or not, is debatable, may not suit every learner. There are a number of students who prefer independent, quieter environments that possibly distance learning provides. It has been seen that some students have actually made more progress through the distance learning approach than they have in school. This may be due to a different environment, less peer pressure, more individual focussed attention, fewer distractions of their time, including outside events and a whole host of other contributing factors. It is easy to make blanket statements that generate a press headline, but these can cause as much damage to a student’s education as being away from a typical classroom environment.

I have seen students grow in terms of resilience, emotional intelligence, awareness of others and being able to talk about things that concern them, including losing loved ones. These are life skills that the hidden curriculum tries to draw out and develop and are something that future employers look for when appointing staff. I doubt that any employer in the future will make a decision whether to appoint one person over another because one applicant was in the year group that did not physically sit exams. If the Secretary of State for Education believes this may be the case, then he is completely missing the actual value of education.

Moving forward, we should be concerned about the students who have struggled mentally and emotionally through this period. We should be checking in on individuals to see how their well-being is doing, not focussing on whether they are as advanced in algebra, British history or Shakespeare. Education is an organic, holistic and hopefully enjoyable venture, not one that should be measured on grades alone. If everyone in a cohort has had equal access to schooling through the pandemic, then their access to formal learning is comparable, and the only gaps should be those that have existed before due to the quality of education they have received, certainly not the quantity delivered.

I do hope that the mention of a gap is only at Bank Station and not in educational circles.

Mark has a lifelong passion for learning and tries to ensure that the student is at the heart of all decisions that are made. Holistic education is fundamental to his philosophy and he believes that learning should not be restricted just to the formal classroom.

He also believes he can demonstrate success, having led schools through 6 ‘Outstanding’ school inspections/accreditations, including the UAE Federal inspection framework.

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