Schools closed, classrooms and playgrounds emptied.
Within a few short weeks, the norms of school education have been upended and educational conventions that go back over a hundred years have had to meet twenty-first century challenges head-on.
Two new reports by the British Council present insights gathered in May 2020 into how ministries of education and teachers are coping.
How ready have education systems and English language teachers been to deal with the crisis of a pandemic? How ready have they been to exploit the huge educational potential that technology affords?
A landscape review of 51 diverse countries across the world where schools are closed reveals that of these only 22 countries have published educational plans to respond to COVID-19. Despite that, in 88 per cent of the countries reviewed, ministries have organised remote learning opportunities for school students, especially through TV, radio and print.
At the same time only a quarter of the countries have been able to exploit more advanced technology by offering direct live teaching online to school students.
To understand the issues that teachers face in the crisis, a second British Council survey canvassed opinions from over 9,000 teachers and teacher educators, focusing on teachers of English in school systems worldwide.
Often relying on their own initiative, commitment and resilience to make the leap into remote schooling, teachers and teacher educators show a high level of engagement with new ways of teaching. 75 per cent were already teaching remotely in some way, with nearly 60 per cent teaching live lessons online.
At the same time, they spoke of the fundamental issues they were facing. In a poor, rural area, one teacher comments that her learners ‘do not have access to internet. About 30 per cent also do not have access to WhatsApp. The caregivers complain that they cannot get them to sit down and work or read.’
Another, managing large numbers of students, highlights the issues, ‘in terms of checking assignments [and of] making sure that (students) are actually benefiting from the online lessons just as the classes we had in school’.
The British Council’s response
In responding to these insights, the British Council has reached out to ministries of education in more than 60 countries. It has shared free teaching and learning materials for English language teachers, including TV and radio materials, from UK providers and the British Council.
It has provided guidance for ministries to support English language learning during the crisis. And it has quickly adapted existing teacher development programmes with ministries from face-to-face to online provision.
One positive is that the crisis has demonstrated how many ministries of education seek the aid of the British Council and the UK in providing materials and support they need for English language teaching in schools.
Another is the fact that in 75 countries and territories without British Council physical representation, teachers have nevertheless directly engaged with free British Council online resources and activities supporting education during the crisis.
With follow-up surveys due in September, the British Council is interested in how the changes forced on education systems will have an impact in the future. When the crisis abates, will its challenges be seen as a temporary blip in the tradition of children sitting at desks in the classroom? Or will radical lessons be learned about how education systems can operate?
It is certain that school systems will struggle to help students recover from the inevitable loss of learning that has occurred. But the crisis has also seen a widening of the learning opportunities available to students and a potential for wider access to learning.
Teachers around the world have exceeded expectations in finding ways of continuing the education of their students remotely and in looking after their well-being during such a stressful time. As school systems recover, it will be a time to reward the efforts of teachers and redouble efforts to help every child learn. But it will also be high time for education systems to really decide how education can be fit for the twenty-first century.
Tim Phillips, Head, Teacher Development, British Council