As lockdown measures are relaxed and schools reopen across Europe, EURACTIV has interviewed experts on whether the pandemic could have a long-lasting impact on education systems in Europe, and they said changes are here to stay.
Just before the crisis, the Center for European Policy Studies (CEPS) conducted an analysis of the readiness for digital learning of education systems across the EU. The picture that emerged was not very encouraging.
“The index showed significant differences across member states in terms of the capacity to take up the opportunities of digital learning, which has proved key to adapt learning activities after the pandemic outbreak”, Sara Baiocco, a researcher in the Jobs and Skills unit at CEPS and co-author of the study, told EURACTIV.
Moreover, the figure of 16,4% of those aged 20-34 that were neither in employment nor in education and training (NEETs) in the EU in 2019 (Eurostat, May 2020) may rise due to this new pandemic context. This is why projects such as NEETs in Entrepreneurship become essential. Funded by Iceland, Liechtenstein and Norway through the EEA and Norway Grants Fund for Youth Employment, the project aims to help 1,600 Bulgarians, Italians, Romanians and Spanish aged 18-29. By 2021 all of them will receive life-skills trainings and counselling, 500 young NEETs will find jobs, 400 will participate in a business incubator, and 40 will start new businesses.
The pandemic has exposed the need to further equip schools with the infrastructure and technologies, and provide teachers and students with the skills needed to adapt to a digital environment. The lockdown to contain the COVID-19 outbreak forced the adaptation out of necessity but the process was smoother in countries and regions where the technological possibilities were already available.
Roger Blamire, a senior adviser at the European Schoolnet, a network of 34 Education ministries in Europe, confirmed that only a minority of schools were ready for such a shock but argued that most had risen to the challenge.
“We saw more system-wide change in the first two weeks of lockdown than in the previous 20 years”, Blamire said.
According to a survey conducted on behalf of the European Commission during the crisis, for two-thirds of the respondents e-teaching was a new experience but the majority think online learning came to stay. As they are already equipped withthe know-how for providing hybrid learning, Junior Achievement organisations implementing the NEETs in Entrepreneurship project in Bulgaria, Italy, Romania and Spain are at the forefront of helping those in need. Founded through the EEA and Norway Grants’ Fund for Youth Employment, the project benefits from the contribution of Iceland, Liechtenstein and Norway towards a green, competitive and inclusive Europe. Being able to achieve these goals by providing training, guidance and support for NEET youth and those that may become NEET in this new global health context is of paramount importance.
The future of education
The skills that are taught and the organisation of the learning experience are the two main aspects where the pandemic can have lasting consequences.
“The pandemic has accelerated the trends that were already in place regarding labour market transformation, notably the transition to the digital economy. Digital skills are central, a new sort of basic skills, deeply intertwined with digital learning”, Baiocco said. These skills, the researcher argued, need to be learned in school and updated over time.
But the coronavirus outbreak also resulted in increasing uncertainty. In a rapidly changing environment, behavioural and socio-emotional skills are as important as cognitive skills.
Andreas Schleicher, the director for education and skills at the OECD, believes the COVID-19 outbreak has proved the need for better social, emotional and organisational skills that would help students and later workers to “navigate ambiguity”, “be creative and imaginative” and take responsibility in times of crisis.
Roger Blamire argued the crisis has been “a wake-up call” for the organisation of the education system and has shown what can be done with technology, but also highlighted the things that only face-to-face interaction can do.
Schleicher added that “in the past, we assumed if people sit in a classroom, everything is fine”, but the pandemic has exposed the inequalities within a classroom both material and in terms of the level attention required.
He argued, however, that the biggest lesson is that education needs to better integrate technology. “In the past learning was a place and now we are realizing learning is an activity, and the activity may extend from school to home”, the OECD expert said.
Baiocco agreed that this transformation – which was already in place – has been accelerated by the lockdown but warned of the impact that moving the learning process outside of schools might have on the whole society.
“Schools being such as important part of the organisation of our society, the effects of such organisational change are likely to go beyond the education system, for example affecting the work-life balance of workers”, Baiocco warned.
In fact, the role of parents during these difficult times has been enormous. Blamire explained that “despite multiple pressures, parents have in large numbers become the teachers of their children, with a better understanding of the curriculum and appreciation of what their school is doing”.
The pandemic has been highly disruptive for everyone, but has been particularly hard on those students who are not very engaged or do not have enough parental support, OECD’s Schleicher said.
“For those, this has been a big shock, and I think they have been left behind”, he added. The socio-economic inequalities and the digital gap are fundamental to explain this. The sudden shift to digital learning, Baiocco explained, can have diverging effects on children, or adults in the case of adult learning, from families with different socio-economic and educational background.
“Ultimately, education and training during and post-COVID could end up reinforcing rather than reducing inequalities”, Baiocco warned.