Female tutor with female student Female tutor with female student

Addressing learning gaps now and building resilient systems for tomorrow

Lou Aisenberg, NTP Programme Manager, draws insights on education and the pandemic from the OECD’s Policy Maker’s Handbook

By the end of 2020, more than 1.5 billion students had experienced periods of school closures, leading to at least some disruption to their learning. In this context, learning gaps between disadvantaged pupils and their better off peers will grow substantially, with a growing body of evidence indicating this is already the case. While some pupils may have benefitted from alternative learning opportunities, disadvantaged pupils on the other hand have been faced with a number of barriers including difficulties to learn autonomously and unequal access to digital resources. Furthermore, it is estimated that if learning loss is left unaddressed, this could result in around 1.5% lower Gross Domestic Product (GDP) throughout the century.

To shed light on promising policy solutions adopted by countries all over the world, and to promote the development of responsive and resilient education ecosystems, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) published ​‘A Policy Maker’s Handbook for More Resilient Systems’. Amongst the policies identified was the National Tutoring Programme (NTP) implemented in England, which provides high-quality tuition to support disadvantaged students whose education has been affected by school closures.

Beyond the specificities of the NTP, it is important to zoom out and consider the different drivers that can contribute to building resilient education ecosystems in the long term. In that endeavour, the OECD proposes three key lessons based on analysis of the international evidence and a selection of policies implemented by countries before and during the crisis:

1. Education actors should nurture resilient mind-sets that value people and processes over classrooms and devices

The OECD analysis found that hybrid models combining in-person approaches with online and other distanced methods like the internet or television, prevail. Education providers should thus consider moving away from the traditional binary education system (online or offline) to adopt a more flexible approach that recognises learning occurs everywhere, using evidence to understand the benefits of different delivery approaches. In this vein, the NTP offers a range of online and in-person tutoring models to offer flexibility to schools.

Furthermore, building the capacity for change across the system is critical to allow individuals working in education to respond, rather than react, to disruptions. In response to the crisis, many countries provided access to digital resources and supported the development of digital skills. However, very few countries provided guidance on how to personalise learning and focus on specific gaps in a pupil’s understanding, or how to ensure the wellbeing of educators and students is prioritised. Japan for instance is one of the rare countries that recruited auxiliary staff to lighten teachers’ extra workload and set up a Human Resources Bank for Supporting Schools and Children.

Finally, several policy guidelines have stressed the importance of developing partnerships beyond education institutions to build a stronger and more reactive ecosystem. For instance, in the French community of Belgium, schools are encouraged to join forces with a broad network of third-sector, private or non-profit educational actors to facilitate extra-curricular activities, such as tutoring. Some countries have also insisted on the importance of maintaining clear and regular communication with parents, creating templates similar to the NTP resources to share with families.

2. Educators need new skills and knowledge to capitalise on new education priorities and means of delivery

Educators all over the world have been expected to respond quickly and innovatively to the many changes induced by the pandemic. Teachers have had to facilitate alternative modes of teaching and learning, primarily online but also, via telephone, radio, TV or postal networks. As schools began to fully reopen, teachers have also been called on to support the implementation of health regulations, and to provide emotional support to their students, while teaching both online and in schools. However, in most cases, all these new demands have not been matched with additional resources. This could in turn have a negative impact on teachers’ motivation, which is a serious risk to consider since many countries have been suffering from teacher shortages even prior to the pandemic.

What is more, the demand for more responsive and flexible approaches to education is likely to outlive the pandemic. Supporting educators to adapt positively to long-term evolutions, is thus all the more critical. The most promising professional development programmes combine factors that have been identified as effective in the specialist literature with levers to boost teachers’ resilience and responsiveness.

3. Addressing learning gaps now will minimise disruption in students’ educational journeys

Last but not least, the crisis has disproportionately affected the most vulnerable learners, with potential long lasting consequences. Remote learning has added a layer of challenges for students with additional needs, and those who cannot necessarily rely on their parents’ support. Similarly, students from low socio-economic backgrounds have a combination of difficulties (e.g., less conducive environments to learn, lower access to digital tools, greater vulnerabilities to the financial and health impacts of the pandemic), while students in rural or remote areas struggled to access reliable digital infrastructures. Repeated school closures may also lead to some students disengaging from learning in the longer term, which may impact attendance rates and increase school dropout and early school leaving rates.

Finding new approaches to addressing learning gaps is thus critical, and this requires implementing additional support today while also building students’ resilience for tomorrow. The most comprehensive policies analysed in the OECD handbook combined personalised or targeted learning interventions, while keeping a focus on the key levers of students’ resilience and responsiveness. However, most countries focused on the former set of interventions, while the focus on students’ resilience was much less frequent.

With the return to schools, several countries have issued guidance to diagnose learning needs, which then inform additional support for those who need it. For instance, teachers in Portugal were expected to organise 1:1 sessions with their students to discuss progress and identify learning gaps that may have occurred during remote learning. This assessment then informed individual learning portfolios and study plans. The NTP rolled out in England is also mentioned by the handbook in regards to targeted interventions, with schools able to put forward the students they consider to be most in need, although most pupils are expected to be eligible for Pupil Premium funding.

Flexible and personalised approaches have also proved to be efficient in the past. For instance, the evaluation of the Norwegian Certificate of Practice Scheme designed to address learning gaps showed that it was most successful when an in-depth assessment of students’ needs preceded the admission to the scheme.

Looking across both the evidence and the actions that countries have taken, it is clear that a set of sustained, coherent, and complementary actions will be needed in England and elsewhere to address learning gaps and nurture resilient mindsets now and in the future. Tackling the complex and multifactorial challenges faced by students, particularly the most disadvantaged, as well as teachers, will definitely not be possible through a single initiative and will require coordinated efforts involving all education stakeholders, including parents and students.

Further reading

  • Department for Education UK (2021), Understanding progress in the 2020/21 academic year, Interim findings, Publication Office of the UK Department for Education, London.
  • Di Pietro, G. et al. (2020), The likely impact of COVID-19 on education: Reflections based on the existing literature and recent international datasets, Publications Office of the European Commission, Luxembourg.
  • EEF/NFER (2021), Impact of school closures and subsequent support strategies on attainment and socio-emotional wellbeing in Key Stage 1: Interim Paper.
  • Hanushek, E. and L. Woessmann (2020), ​“The economic impacts of learning losses”, OECD Education Working Papers, No. 225, OECD Publishing, Paris.
  • Maldonado, J. and K. De Witte (2020), ​“The effect of school closures on standardised student test outcomes”, Discussion Paper Series, No. DPS20.17, KU Leuven Department of Economics, Leuven.
  • OECD (2020),Lessons for Education from COVID-19: A Policy Maker’s Handbook for More Resilient Systems, OECD Publishing, Paris.
  • OECD (2020), ​“Combatting COVID-19’s effect on children”, OECD Policy Responses to Coronavirus (COVID-19), OECD Publishing, Paris.
  • OECD (2019), TALIS 2018 Results (Volume I): Teachers and School Leaders as Lifelong Learners, TALIS, OECD Publishing, Paris.
  • UNESCO (2020), Global monitoring of school closures caused by COVID-19.
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