What will be the “new normal” in education?

Secondary school student studying at home using a tablet and headphones with a parent working online in the background

Just what will be the “new normal” in education, post-pandemic? That’s the question that Tim Oates CBE set out to address in a keynote speech to 4000 educators.

Tim, Cambridge Assessment’s Group Director of Assessment Research and Development, was speaking at the Harris Federation’s professional development conference, held online this year due to Covid-19. The Harris Federation is an education charity led and operated by teachers which runs 50 primary and secondary academy schools in London and Essex, and trains thousands of teachers per year.

Introducing Tim’s talk, Harris Federation Chief Executive Sir Dan Moynihan said: “Tim is a person who is really worth listening to, because what he says is based on in-depth research over an extended period of time on high performing educational systems and the kinds of approaches that are likely to work best in the ‘new normal’ post-pandemic.”

Tim began his talk by looking back at the pre-Covid landscape and what was going well, saying: “We must not lose the things we were doing pre-pandemic that were resulting in high achievement and high equity for our young people”.

Referencing the economist Prof Eric Hanushek’s work on global education surveys, Tim said that both equity and attainment “can and must be secured, not traded-off one against the other”.

“You don’t need to go for high attainment by, for example, neglecting the development of the least able,” Tim added.

He said it was vital for all young people that educators were highly trained, and took part in regular Continuing Professional Development. Fair assessment which supports learning and progression was another important part of what was needed going forward, particularly “more of the right kind”. High quality educational resources also continued to play an important role, both paper and online.

Referencing the work of one of the leading thinkers on international comparisons in education, Prof Bill Schmidt, Tim said that focus, rigour and coherence are all features of high performing systems. And he said that the pandemic had taught us that our arrangements need to be robust and resilient.

Turning to recovery learning, Tim pointed to the value of Prof John Hattie’s insights into the action in New Zealand in response to interruption of schooling after the Christchurch earthquake. There, standards actually rose after interruption, since schools did something different rather than “rushed normal teaching to catch up”.  What worked was a period of one-to-one diagnosis and support around learning loss, followed by concentrated programmes to accelerate and consolidate learning. Monitoring needed to take place, with immediate action on misconceptions, and rich questions from the teacher encouraging classroom discourse.

Tim’s talk was followed by a session in which he took questions from an engaged and interested audience on the post-pandemic education landscape.