Ten years ago, Education International and the OECD began co-hosting with various countries an altogether unique, (somewhat unlikely) but critically necessary convening of ministers of education and heads of teachers’ unions. The purpose was to support an informed and honest policy dialogue between and among elected representatives of the teaching profession and national government authorities. One decade later as the COVID-19 pandemic impacts the health, safety, education and wellbeing of citizens everywhere, it is more important than ever to strengthen dialogue between ministries of education and teachers’ unions.
With over half the world’s children and teachers engaged in some kind of emergency education and the other half without it entirely, returning to school safely and successfully is of paramount importance. For this reason, we have teamed once again to hold a virtual ISTP dialogue on the issue of the reopening of schools and education institutions and the five pillars that undergird doing it successfully.
With schools and education institutions still or partially closed in a majority of countries, there are critical issues for governments to consider, as countries gradually begin to re-open early childhood institutions, schools and higher education institutions. For both OECD and Education International it is imperative that governments communicate transparently and continuously about the plans for reopening onsite education, and that those plans reconcile educational needs and health requirements. To build the trust necessary for success, continuous social and policy dialogue with educators and their unions is the cornerstone of any successful education strategy. Schools are centers of their communities. They are essential for students’ learning and social skills. It is vital, therefore, that strategies for their reopening are successful for students, parents and teachers.
The pandemic has exposed the many inadequacies and inequities in our education systems - from the broadband and computers needed for online education, through the supportive environments needed to focus on learning, up to the difficulties found to align teaching resources with needs. However, as these inequities are amplified in this time of crisis, this moment also holds the possibility that we will not return to the status quo when things get back to “normal”. Governments and unions can act jointly and it is the nature of these collective and systemic responses to the disruptions that will determine how we are affected by them. There is a clear path forward.
Engaging in Social and Policy Dialogue
Research shows that when public authorities engage in continuous social and policy dialogue with educators and their representative unions to assess needs, including health needs, and collaborate on how best to transition to onsite teaching and learning – the trust engendered translates into positive outcomes for students and communities. Moreover, when labor rights of teachers are respected and decent working conditions are maintained the focus can be on supporting students, their socioemotional wellbeing and learning.
Making Equity a Top Priority
Equity must be front and center of all transition plans, recognizing that the impact of the pandemic is not equal and that already vulnerable students and education workers have been and may continue to be the most affected. Therefore, effective support structures are needed for vulnerable students and staff who are enduring increased hardship and for students who have not been able to participate in online or home-based learning. A forward-looking strategy must also be developed for addressing possible increases in drop-out rates, paying particular attention to girls and women, and those where the economic downturn increases the risk of child labor.
Matching Educational Priorities with New Realities
The teaching priorities for the coming year must respond to the needs of students and to the different conditions that may be necessary to teach in the modified school environments that health guidelines may create, at home and in the expanded learning environments essential to sustain education. In the short and medium term, schools may be more restricted than normal, increasing the amount of time necessary for hygiene. For instance, the possibility of collaborative work, sports or other extracurricular activities that require close physical contact with others may be reduced. This may require redesigning learning and teaching in order to provide students the best opportunities possible to learn, making optimal use of new ways of teaching and learning.
Ensuring an effective infrastructure to allow collaboration online should be a priority because of the possibility of interactivity it enables. The exercise of rebalancing the curriculum should begin with a whole-child view of the essential competencies students need, including cognitive, social and emotional aspects. It should identify opportunities created by the new conditions, for example, the need to foster greater student agency, as a significant portion of their learning will require.
At the same time, learning under the conditions created by the pandemic may have created new emotional needs. Similarly, essential social skills ordinarily cultivated as students collaborate with peers in schools, could require imagination and design in order to develop them through a variety of approaches. There is an opportunity here for governments and unions to work together to examine the impact of the health crisis on teaching, learning and the curriculum. This provides not only an opportunity to respond to the immediate conditions created by the public health crisis, but also to begin accelerating progress in addressing the needs of students from disadvantaged backgrounds whom the pandemic has made more visible.
Supporting Physical and Emotional Wellbeing and Recovery
Research shows that student wellbeing and teacher wellbeing are inextricably linked. In successful jurisdictions, systems are in place to support the wellbeing and mental health of children, students and education staff, including through dedicated psychosocial support and counselling. In addition to the pandemic causing stress and anxiety, many children, students and education staff will also find it difficult to return to school and adapt to new routines, including restrictions on social interaction. This may require dedicated support for those who have suffered bereavement, abuse, violence, or other emotional trauma.
Trusting the Professionalism of Educators
Finally, and incredibly important, is that education authorities engage with educators and their unions to determine and assess the impact of the school closures on teaching, learning and student wellbeing. Any framework for transitioning to onsite education must be built on trust in the professionalism and pedagogical practice of the education workforce. Collective understanding and clarity on any assessment requirements is best reached in dialogue with educators and their unions to ensure fair and equal treatment of all students and the continued professional autonomy of educators.
Over these past 10 years of co-organizing the International Summits on the Teaching Profession we have seen firsthand the benefits of an institutionalized and evidence-informed dialogue. We have seen bottom-up reforms take hold and joint commitments taken forward. Key to everything is establishing an open channel for communication and engagement, and a willingness to exhibit leadership that keeps the larger purpose in focus. COVID-19 has exposed glaring inequalities and the unpreparedness of many education systems to respond to crises. But, it also affords us the opportunity to build back better and learn from our mistakes. How we choose to approach school reopening has the potential to shape not just the path we find ourselves on together but whether we all arrive better for the journey.
Click here to download Schooling Disrupted, Schooling Rethought - the OECD report on how the Covid-19 pandemic is changing education.