The Network for Social and Educational Equity (NSEE) recently worked with educational practitioners to find out more about their experiences of working through the second school buildings lockdown (since January 2021).
The NSEE expert practitioners’ panel (EPP) involves head teachers, principal teachers and classroom teachers from four local authorities in Scotland. A key element of the EPP are roundtable discussions, where members are asked about their experience of ongoing developments in Scottish education.
The EPP roundtable discussion on Covid-19 took place in February 2021, and focussed on teacher wellbeing, innovation, relationships with parents, and what they believed would change as a result of Covid-19.
Ripping up the rule book
The past year ripped up the rule book about what teaching was and was expected to be, the group agreed. One teacher described senior staff in their school as feeling like newly qualified teachers (NQTs) and experiencing high levels of stress. Another reflected that you were constantly responding in real time to changing situations, rather than relying on plans and existing practices, which was a challenge as education was not designed in this way.
The consensus across the group was that Covid-19 had created new and different pressures that added to the already increased workloads of staff. This was coupled with the uncertainty about when this current arrangement would end, participants agreeing that this should be done in accordance with scientific advice.
The workload of teachers during the current lockdown was exacerbated by their time between face-to-face learning (in Hub Schools) and being available for those attending school online.
The current lockdown redesigned the face-to-face offer in hub schools. While the hub school still supported the children of keyworkers or from vulnerable families, this was done within individual schools (rather than a ‘community hub’ that incorporated pupils from various schools). Also, rather than focusing on health and wellbeing, the hub school now concentrated on learning and teaching. Staff in the schools ‘bubbled’ and worked to a rota that assigned them different portions of the week for face-to-face work.
Teachers agreed with that working in the hub schools brought associated risks, exposing them to pupils who may have been in contact with adults who have symptoms of Covid-19. It was described by one participant as “people putting themselves on the front line”, PSA and office staff as well as teachers.
Teachers mostly agreed that ‘vulnerability’ was a wide umbrella term, and could reflect parental addiction, bereavement, additional support needs, and English as a second language. One participant stated, “vulnerability is not a binary issue… Children are vulnerable for a multitude of reasons”. One strength of the latest lockdown is that many agreed that they were able to reflect on their previous experiences to better identify what pupils would benefit from additional support.
Pupils not attending the hub schools were offered online learning. This differed from school to school, but many of the issues and positives associated with online learning could be seen across the different local authority areas.
Covid-19 has led to a massive change in education, and this has demanded a lot of training and upskilling of teachers. Teachers have now gone through massive learning with reference to technology, which should be a benefit to children. Some teachers reflected that they were in a “much better position for this lockdown” thanks to the training given to staff digital technology such as Microsoft Teams and Google classroom.
Given the new nature of the online offer, teachers agreed that it had a negative impact on their workload, with some citing needing to work evenings and weekends to create and upload new work for their pupils, and the negative impact this had on their mental health.
Some suggested that enabling recorded lessons allowed pupils to proceed at their own pace, and in their own environment. It also allowed staff to adapt pedagogy to fit individual needs.
Others suggested that online learning was very impersonal, it was difficult to reach out to pupils who were not engaging online and was a challenge when teaching early years in primary school.
Parents and the delivery of online teaching
The relationship between teachers, the school community, and parents was raised by many of the EPP members. For some, there was a need to manage parent expectations, particularly where parents believed online teaching should mirror classroom timetables of 9am-3pm.
There was a feeling in the group that some parents did not appreciate the time, planning and commitment required by teachers in delivering the online offering. Within this minority of parents, there were demands for more work to support their individual child and demands for all work to be uploaded on a Sunday evening so pupils could work at their own pace.
However, these demands also had an impact on other parents. One teacher described parents reporting anxiety as they couldn’t keep up with the amount of work that was being put online, and the associated demands being placed on them as home educators. They described parents feeling like they were “falling behind and struggling”.
A related point connected with parents and online teaching was the need for equity. This both relates to homes not having access to digital devices but also the parents’ skill sets in relation to online learning.
One teacher described receiving phone calls from parents all day requiring IT support. They described creating step by step guides to support parents in accessing resources, and uploading documents that had little impact. Instead, they reverted to paper homework packs, to ensure pupils were able to access learning.
However, others suggested that the current situation had afforded them better insights into the lives of their children and families. This insight could be useful in developing better opportunities to improve relationships with families and communities out with the traditional school gates/parents’ night context.
Impact of the past year on mental health and wellbeing of teachers
Throughout the discussion, teachers referred to the strain of their own, and their colleagues’ mental health and wellbeing. They talked about the debilitating nature of the work, the increased stress of having to manage both online teaching and attending a hub where there was a risk of infection.
The long hours put into developing new materials and supporting both pupils and their parents led many staff to describe unmanageable workloads. In addition to issues of workload stress and high demands, teachers also discussed personal stressors relating to their own family experiences of lockdown, and experience of ill-health, and staff requiring to shield due to underlying health conditions.
One of the most cited challenges for the teachers was feeling uncertain about when schools would return. A few participants described knowing how hard they would need to work over the next few weeks with the hope that schools would gradually reopen but acknowledging that this would depend on scientific evidence relating to the spread of the virus.
For teachers not involved in primary 1-3 or the senior stage of secondary school, there was a discussion about feeling demoralised as they saw their colleagues begin to prepare to return to school, while they continued to offer online and hub support.
An associated challenge focused on the ability of parents to manage where they had one pupil in infants, and another in middle stage primary school. This may lead to them sending one child to school, while having to continue monitoring their older child’s home learning. This was seen as a potentially difficult situation for working parents to juggle these very different learning contexts.
Another challenge focussed on assessment. Several teachers felt the current situation had encouraged them to think about what they were doing, indicating that teaching and learning had been driven by SQA and assessment demands. One teacher said that “assessment and the SQA are driving teaching”. This challenge could be met by having a critical discussion regarding how to better implement equity and excellence into assessment systems.
Finally, the panel discussed the need for a national timetable to ensure learning and recovery to meet the challenges faced by pupils. Teachers in secondary schools focussed on this where pupils had lost opportunities for practical knowledge (e.g. in technology and design, or science), or where pupils were facing their sixth-year exams after not having sat their National 5s or Highers. It was also raised in the early stages of primary school, where much of the learning is experiential and not translatable to the home environment.
The impact of developing online resources, and digitally upskilling the teaching workforce was one of the biggest opportunities discussed by the group. Teachers agreed the possibility for digital learning continued to be an integral part of schooling, through supported study. The recorded videos and online worksheets have ensured the development of an online revision resource that would allow the continued support to parents with their children’s homework.
They described the ability to reinforce learning at home and continuing to build up parents’ digital skills was one of the successes of lockdown.
The development of videos and resources were also discussed as having the potential to feed into a national strategy. Some suggested that the Scottish Government could gather online resources from different schools and create a national repository of resources, to enforce the digital offering for schools without adding to the workload.