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Teaching into the Void: How COVID-19 Broke the Education Sector

The current spate of industrial action is the symptom of a deeper malaise revealed by the pandemic: a Government apathetic to the plight of teachers

A teacher in their classroom during the COVID-19 Pandemic. Photo: Alamy/PA Images

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If you were asked to cast your mind back to a time when a member of the government urged teachers to prioritise the children of key workers, you’d most probably think of the breakout of the COVID-19 pandemic. However, the same rhetoric would be used under three years after this – a time span in which the UK was treated to six different education secretaries.

At the beginning of 2023, Gillian Keegan urged schools to prioritise the children of key workers as tens of thousands of teachers began what would come to be an educational year (so far) defined by strike action. Union numbers continue to grow, their power formidable enough to result in a pay rise and work reduction offer that they feel viable enough to put to their members – though it is not in line with inflation. But what has led to teachers in the UK needing to strike?

Shrinking salaries, rising classroom sizes and a stripping back of resources continue to plague the profession, but the story of teaching during and after COVID-19 provides a deeper insight into the desperation of those in our classrooms. 

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A Deeply Rewarding Profession

“There was a point earlier this year where I would have to spend a good amount of time mentally recovering from the day I had just had,” Joe tells me. A secondary school teacher from Essex, he found teaching fulfilling when he started. “I really enjoyed introducing a new topic to a group of students, seeing them engage and absorb the information and then interacting with them about the subject. It can be a deeply rewarding profession.” 

Joe grew as a teacher, half-jokingly/half-candidly admitting that he considered himself a “favourite” of the students. He started teaching English and he decided to stick it out and take any role in the History department that cropped up, it being his preferred subject. As 2019 came to a close, a truly historic situation was brewing.

From when COVID-19 began to emerge in the UK up until mid-March – even past late February when SAGE declared that a reasonable worst-case scenario would see 500,000 die from the virus – the Department for Education (DfE) was working to a 2011 influenza preparedness strategy which, when trialled in 2016, found that policies and capability were “not sufficient to cope with the extreme demands of a severe pandemic”. The strategy focused on keeping schools open, going so far as to suggest that “retired teaching staff return” to support, as well as a “temporary upskilling of students”. Over the mid-March weekend, the government realised that this plan could not continue.

Within a day, teachers at Joe’s school went from business as usual to planning lessons to send out via Google Workspace, a platform they usually used for homework assignments. From then on, for several months, all of Joe’s teaching was carried out through this platform. There was no longer a noticeable difference between ‘good lessons’ and ‘bad lessons’. It was a matter of teaching using what was essentially a one-way system, providing little to no interaction between student and teacher. “I was essentially teaching into the void.”

Elsewhere, in an academy school that caters to children outside of the mainstream education system, it was almost the opposite reaction – highlighting the dynamic nature of our education system. Teachers noted relief as many of their pupils already found the classic classroom setting difficult. “I was relieved, lots of staff have dependents who are vulnerable,” one staff member says. Workloads increased in this school due to the rigorous safeguarding the pupils are subject to, but the general consensus was – as long as the DfE and government were open and communicated clearly, things could work.

Flawed Reporting to the Frontline

Contingency plans varied from school to school but were all tarnished by unpredictable communication from the DfE. Rebecca Montacute, head of research and policy at The Sutton Trust, a charity promoting social mobility and fighting educational disadvantage, was told of emails sent to headmasters over the weekend (Damian Hinds, education secretary from January 2018 to July 2019, had spoken out against teachers responding to emails out of office hours during his tenure, investing £10m into education technology to reduce workloads). 

A two-part study into the effects of COVID-19 on teachers in England published in Educational Psychology found that one of four themes evident in teacher feedback was “growing frustration at uncertainties caused by poor government leadership”. On the lack of government guidance, one teacher’s feedback reads: “I just think it’s unreasonable. I think the government hasn’t thought about the well-being of teachers throughout this time, at all.”

“This kind of communication had the long-term effect of running down education staff’s trust”, Rebecca Montacute notes, saying it showed a “lack of appreciation and consideration”. Not to mention, the spectacular number of U-turns performed by Gavin Williamson over this time, highlighted by one of the teachers at the academy school: “They would make decisions that were clearly wrong and then backtrack, they did not think about the welfare of teachers or students”. With communication lines faltering from the very top of the education sector all the way down to the students, a wave of isolation and detachment gripped pupils across the country.


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A Catastrophe Detention Couldn’t Fix

Joe noticed a marked difference in his students as teachers and children began to return to the school in September. “These kids had had so long not socialising and not learning in the way they were used to, behaviour became a huge issue.”

Guidelines the government laid out involved students staying in “groups or bubbles” to reduce the risk of spreading infection. In Joe’s school, this meant the students stayed in one classroom as teachers of different subjects rotated in and out. “The behavioural problems weren’t surprising,” he says. “Wearing masks all the time and sitting in the same room all day, anyone would begin to feel frantic or act out.” At the academy school, teachers noted the “social element” of the process being an “uphill battle”. “Repercussions are still showing in many year groups, even now.”

With teachers less able to provide support in areas like mental health as the social element of education disappeared, student well-being nosedived. A survey by Place2Be and NAHT showed that out of the 1,130 education staff in primary and secondary schools surveyed, 76% reported witnessing an increase in depression, with 68% seeing an increase in sustained feelings of anger. 

The aforementioned Educational Psychology report found that, when teachers were faced with the array of issues that came with the pandemic, they prioritised “finding a way”, a concept reflected in Joe’s description of trying to teach classes while largely debilitated by the guidelines and student’s growing discontent. “Much of the time, you were unable to remove students disrupting the class, COVID-19 guidelines disallowed or suggested against interacting too closely with students, so what can you do? You just had to get through the lesson and go from there.” 

Though this mentality can sustain something amounting to a workable educational system for a short time, it wasn’t built to last. Though Joe expresses that, since COVID-19, their job has never achieved a sense of normality.

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The Impact on Staff

Educational Psychology’s study found that positive student-teacher relationships are “an important source of job satisfaction, providing meaning and purpose”. These relationships weren’t just damaged during lockdown, they were completely severed, with what followed being a shadow of the former teaching experience. Through this, what the study refers to as a teacher’s “narrative identity” – how they perceive themselves and the confidence they have to carry out their job – was adversely affected.

This loss of identity is evidenced in the statistics, as a report by Education Support found more fulfilling work (66%), more respect/appreciation (72%) and more opportunities to engage meaningfully in the subject they enjoy (75%) are all reasons teachers would consider leaving the education sector altogether, even more enticing than better pay (64%). 

Joe, for instance, is leaving the profession after four years of service, moving into a caseworking position at a college. Though he expresses regret at leaving his students, the energy and positivity in his voice belie any lasting regret or remorse. Student’s favourite or not, Joe is not alone with teachers leaving at higher frequencies year after year. 

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Could there be a Compromise?

A glimmer of hope arrived for the government in mid-July as all four teaching unions agreed to take the new offer – recommended by the School Teachers’ Review Body – to their members in England. The offer includes a 6.5% pay rise and commitments to work reduction for teachers. Though the offer does signal a shift in what the Government is willing to do for teachers, and though it has committed to not pulling this money from school resource funds (a methodology it has suggested in offers already), many teachers will dislike where the Prime Minister wants to pull the money from. 

The pay rise for public sector workers, in general, will be at least partly funded by increased fees for visas to study and work in the UK and follows in step with the Government’s stripping back of the visa system more generally. “My colleagues and I are happy with the terms offered, but understandably displeased with how the government plan to get the money,” Joe says. 

Rishi Sunak may be hoping for some mercy from the groups within the four teaching unions organising to oppose the deal, as has been reported in The Guardian on the 16th of July. But, then again, where has the Government’s mercy been as resources have been stripped away and pay left to languish for so long? On top of this add the onslaught of COVID-19, in which teachers were forced to the frontlines in the very maelstrom of the pandemic.

With societal and organisational structures our education system relies on shattered, little has been done to help schools recover. With many teachers actively looking for work in other sectors and a lingering sense that the profession will never fully recover from the damage that has been done, maybe our education sector is faced with a crisis that pay rises and promises can’t fix. 

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