A post card from (virtual) Serbia









A recent piece of work by the European Agency for Special Needs and Inclusive Education (the Agency) reviews a range of information about the impact of the pandemic on education internationally, across Europe and at a national level. Given that the Agency works by promoting collaborative approaches, sharing practice, policy and research, its role in the pandemic has been, and still is, to identify ways in which European countries can learn and collaborate to minimise the effects of the current education crisis on vulnerable learners.

Just a point of clarification: whilst the majority of countries in the Agency are members of the European Union, there are also countries, including Iceland, Norway and Switzerland, who are long-standing members of the Agency, and all four of the UK nations have continued in membership since the UK left the EU.  

Back to the report: it recognises that all European countries took measures to ensure the continuity of education during the pandemic. However, across Europe, these measures were sometimes inadequate, with limited guidance on inclusion in education and with school closures increasing pre-existing inequalities. Inequalities affected disadvantaged learners at several levels: … up to 32 % of pupils without access to education for several months in some Member States; … for many learners, this lack of access stemmed from an absence of digital equipment, inadequate digital skills or pre-existing disadvantage; … even where learners had access to digital education, they still often had to learn without teacher, peer or home support and sometimes in an unstable home environment. While this particular excerpt is from a report by the European Parliament, it echoes findings from UK studies.

In another European study, from the European Academy of Childhood Disability, there is evidence, from a survey of both families and health practitioners, on the loss of therapies. The report identifies a severe reduction in amount of therapy received, with half of families reporting that they had not have received any therapy at all between March and May 2020; increased levels of stress and anxiety for families and professionals; a significant impact on mental health, again for families and professionals; and an extreme burden being placed upon the (family) caregivers.

Amanda Spielman’s commentary on one of the Ofsted reports of last autumn recognised that across all age groups, children with SEND have been seriously affected in both their care and education, as the services that families relied on, particularly speech and language services, were unavailable.

The FFT Education Datalab highlights the differences in school attendance rates (outside the periods of school closure) and the disproportionately low attendance rates for disadvantaged pupils and pupils with SEN. And in Key Stage 1, the EEF has published further findings from an ongoing study by the National Foundation for Educational Research, examining the impact of Covid-19 related disruption on the attainment of Key Stage 1 pupils. The analysis suggests Year 2 still have significantly lower achievement in both reading and maths than would be expected in normal times, and that the disadvantage gap remains wider than expected.

This is not intended to send everyone into their own, or even a collective, Slough of Despond, rather to recognise the size and shape of the task that still lies ahead. It is also to recognise that, in the analysis of all the information that went in to the review by the Agency, one of the clearest messages, across Europe, is the intention to build back better. Whilst build back better may have acquired a bit of a bad name for itself as an empty slogan, in the context of education this is set out as an opportunity to put equality and inclusion at the heart of recovery. There are other positive messages in the review: the need for collaborative approaches is clear; as is the need to share our collective understanding of practice, policy and research.

In the slightly stilted language of the European Parliament, there is also a recognition of what everyone has been through. The Parliament:

Salutes the creativity and resourcefulness shown by education and training institutions, in particular their teaching and educational staff, and by students and parents in adapting to online and distance learning, especially in light of the fast-changing circumstances and uncertain times; salutes, similarly, the positive examples set by citizens, civil society and non-formal education providers in adapting their education practices and developing initiatives that have enabled learning to continue; calls for more efforts to scale up and increase the visibility of effective initiatives, and to promote best practices in all education sectors …

This time last year the bi-annual meeting of the Agency was cancelled, along with many other events that have traditionally relied on face-to-face gatherings. At each of the subsequent meetings we have anticipated that we would meet face-to-face at the next. And each time the next meeting has been convened on Teams. This time, we are more realistic and are planning the second 2021 bi-annual meeting in the virtual world. At least it’s quicker getting back to the office when the meeting’s over; just a few raised eyebrows when I apologised for being a few minutes late getting back from Belgrade.  

I usually sign off by saying Wish you were here but, perhaps more realistically, I should say, hope we can meet face-to-face again soon.