In the latest NEU survey, 10,000+ school and college staff give a clear signal on how best to steer a course for education out of Covid.

  • Smaller class sizes should be retained as a lesson from lockdown, staff tell us.
  • Government must take urgent action to support schools and colleges during the recovery and beyond, by reducing high workload (85%) and the role of Ofsted and performance tables in the next school year (77%). They must also address the digital divide once and for all.
  • 98% do not believe extended school days or changing term lengths are worth considering at this time, with far greater urgency placed on flexibility and creativity to properly aid on-site student engagement and learning.
  • Almost all respondents (94%) believe poverty affects learning, with 51% saying it does so to a “large extent”. 68% believe government must urgently tackle the recent rise in child poverty.

In advance of the National Education Union’s annual conference, held online from today (7 April), more than 10,000 teachers, leaders and support staff from across the UK and in all school and college settings have made clear their views on the State of Education and the conditions they are having to work under. Results will be released throughout conference.

The survey was conducted in the days leading up to the wider opening of schools on 8 March. Whilst schools have stayed open throughout lockdown for the children of key workers and the vulnerable, many others have studied from home. Getting the transition back to on-site education right is something about which our members have strong views. That, and the situation for disadvantaged students as they return, is the focus of today’s release.

The pandemic

We asked members to reflect on the Covid year. In a multiple-choice question, we invited them to select features of their working conditions since March 2020 that should be retained as we emerge from the pandemic.

  • 69% members had welcomed new ways of working with technology in teaching, believing it had gone well. More than a third (37%) appreciated the greater levels of communication they had experienced with families by telephone and video call, and 57% said online parents’ evenings had been a good innovation.
  • 46% had found smaller class sizes rewarding.
  • 49% welcomed the greater public recognition of the needs of disadvantaged pupils.
  • 37% of respondents said that focusing on core concepts rather than the full curriculum was another valuable takeaway from learning in lockdown.

Our joint general secretary Dr Mary Bousted has written recently about the increased awareness among parents of the school curriculum and the flaws within it which need fixing (1).

The recovery

The transition back to learning on-site presents an important challenge for all concerned. For those students who have worked from home throughout lockdown, they will be seeking a continuity of learning which in part also recognises the emotional needs and adjustments of physically returning to their school/college.

Teachers, leaders and support staff know this better than anyone and can diagnose the most important ways of providing support. We asked members to select from the following list the approaches which are most valuable, ticking all that apply, and the collected responses rank as follows:

Pupils/Students have missed varying numbers of months of in-person education. Which of the following do you think are important to support them?

Flexibility in the curriculum so we can decide at school/college level what is important for learning and wellbeing

82%

Opportunities for sport and exercise

68%

Increasing creative and practical learning

66%

Being able to learn through small group work

62%

Increasing the number of teachers/lecturers

51%

More one-on-one time with their regular teachers/lecturers to aid differentiation

46%

Tuition programmes

21%

A strong focus on delivering all of the existing curriculum

10%

Extending school days or term lengths

2%

This demonstrates a clear wish to work with students in a way that is nimble and unconstrained by curriculum diktat, with active and creative elements forming a strong part of that approach. The results of the survey also stress a need for smaller group work, matched by an increase in the numbers of staff to help facilitate those more individual-focused sessions.

Most striking are the low rankings for government priorities and proposals, including the extension of school days and a change of term lengths (just 2%). Only one-in-five think that tuition programmes are an important mechanism for supporting recovery. This arguably reflects the limited professional control schools and colleges have over the government's controversial approach to providing tuition.   

When asked – again through multiple choice – what interventions the government could be making at this time, the messages were clear.

Which of these interventions should government make to support the recovery your pupils/students will require after missing face-to-face education?

Keeping staff workloads at an acceptable level

85%

Focusing first on recovery – addressing the social and emotional wellbeing and mental health impacts of the pandemic on pupils/students

80%

Reducing the pressure on staff from accountability measures (such as performance tables or inspection) for 2021/22

77%

Reducing levels of child poverty

68%

Access to external support services (e.g. CAMHS)

63%

Providing increased opportunities for creative, cultural and arts activities

60%

Prioritising the needs of the vulnerable / disadvantaged

56%

Addressing the digital divide once and for all

55%

Focussing or reducing the curriculum nationally (including qualification specifications)

52%

Removing some external / national assessments to reduce pressure on pupils/students

48%

Providing additional support to families with young children

40%

Removing all external / national assessments to reduce pressure on pupils/students

33%

Evidently, the government not only has the wrong priorities but also needs to act urgently on existing pressure points in the system. Workload remains high; even in normal circumstances, teachers work some of the longest hours of any profession. There is also a strongly held view that the pressure of performance tables and Ofsted should be reduced in the next school year, allowing schools and colleges to get on with the job. There are calls, too, to reduce the levels of child poverty and improve access to external support services which are in high demand after an extraordinary period of disruption to young lives. The lesson of the government’s chaotic laptops scheme is also clear: they must fix the digital divide once and for all.

One respondent was unambiguous in their verdict on the skewed priorities of government: “The whole way schools work is affected by the top-down myopic government obsession with terminal examinations, competition, control, and misguided strategies from [schools minister] Nick Gibb.”

Poverty

Almost half of all respondents to the survey (49%) said that a greater public recognition of the needs of disadvantaged pupils had been a positive outcome of the pandemic. And more than two-thirds (68%) told us that a rise in child poverty – exacerbated by the economic downturn – was an urgent matter for government to address as we emerge from Covid.

Our survey also reveals how, for the vast majority of education staff, witnessing poverty is a daily occurrence.

What proportion of your pupils/students do you consider to be

economically disadvantaged (e.g. eligible for FSM/EMA, or where poverty has a clear impact on their ability to reach their potential)

None

4%

Up to 20%

31%

21% to 40%

25%

41% to 60%

15%

61% to 80%

9%

81% to 100%

3%

Don't Know

12%

It is important to note that these figures represent staff not individual schools, but even so these are striking levels. 52% of those responding to our survey are working with intakes where more than a fifth are economically disadvantaged.

Half of all who responded (51%) believe poverty affects pupils/students to a "large extent", with an additional 35% saying to "some extent" and an additional 9% to “a small extent”. These attitudes are comparable to when the same question was put in our 2019 survey (49%, 33% and 10% respectively).

An earlier NEU survey, published in January 2021, showed that 55% of those responding had seen an increase in child poverty at their school or college since March 2020, the start of the first national lockdown (2).

Through the State of Education survey, we have heard many reports of how vital a lifeline schools and colleges have been to disadvantaged students during the past year.

“I called home during the first lockdown and spoke to an older sibling who was panicking because the Free School Meals vouchers email hadn't arrived. It was the evening before a bank holiday weekend and there was no food in the house. I will never forget the panic in that girl's voice. No school child should have to worry about where their next meal is coming from.”

“We have had pupils and their families move in to hostels during the pandemic when they were evicted. They were rehoused - but literally were given a house. No furniture, ovens, fridge, washing machine, no carpets. Nothing. We rallied as a school and furnished 2 homes.”

“In 20 years teaching I have never seen the situation so bad.”

“We provide free uniforms and free breakfasts. We have used school laptops to help some. Our school has remained open to all during this latest lockdown and 85% of the children are in school.”

“We have children that aren't clothed properly, without coats in winter, or have holes in shoes and my school’s Inclusion Team are excellent at working with the families to get them the support they need quickly and efficiently. We also have a stock of spare clothes that on occasion we can give to families.”

Commenting on the survey results, Dr Mary Bousted, joint general secretary of the National Education Union, said:

"It is now beyond doubt that child poverty is on the rise. The effects can last a lifetime, and young people have one chance in education. There is no doubt, too, that schools and colleges have been going beyond the call of duty for them during this past year, as they always do.

“The government, by contrast, spent much of 2020 voicing warm words about its concern for the disadvantaged including when mounting arguments for the wider opening of schools and colleges in September and January. Yet, sadly and unsurprisingly, it has persistently failed to deliver for the young people in poverty whose families need real support and action.

“The government has been on the wrong side of history for too long, and its playing fair-weather friend to disadvantaged young people fools nobody. They could follow the example of the US Government which in its recently passed recovery package introduced measures to significantly reduce levels of child poverty. Instead, the Chancellor Rishi Sunak is currently choosing to remove the £20 uplift in Universal Credit and not providing any support to families with children.

“It is clear from the results of this survey that our members strongly endorse the education recovery plan that the National Education Union has been putting forward for some time.

“Were the education secretary to have taken on board the views of the profession, we would have avoided his exams debacle in 2020, pointless battles over free school meals, and a tardy response to the need for laptops for home learning. Should the Prime Minister have prioritised good practice over good press, he may have enacted the circuit break that was widely called for during autumn term. Instead, we saw needless levels of disruption to learning due to the constant shortcomings of government.

"Learning has continued throughout lockdown, although precious little appears to have occurred at the Department for Education. The message is clear: we need to steer a course beyond Covid which rights the historic faults of the education system in this country and the distorted priorities of those who run it.

"If the government is serious about building back better, then they should take on board these views. Education professionals have been on the frontline, either virtual or physical, throughout the last twelve months and it is their insights on what has worked best that should be taken forward. The genie is out of the bottle so there is no reason to stick by the dead wood of a bloated curriculum, excessive accountability and oversized classes. All are now discredited, not just in the eyes of school and college staff but of parents too. The world has changed because of Covid and the education system should change with it."

ENDS

2021-051-NEU

NOTES:

  1. Dr Mary Bousted, How Covid revealed the massive flaws in the curriculum, TES, 17 March. 2021
  2. NEU survey shows need to support students during lockdown, 21 January 2021.