Education & Skills

What will be Covid’s lasting legacy on our education systems?


The Covid pandemic has left no sector untouched. The disruption to education has arguably created the most far-reaching consequences and long-term impacts, the extent of which we won’t fully understand for years to come. Students, teachers, parents: each had to embrace new approaches to learning, rely on unfamiliar technology, and reach deep within for the fortitude required for months of home-schooling. From primary age pupils through to university students, the pandemic has also taken a serious toll on the mental health of students, which will require serious attention from schools, universities and governments in the coming years.

Key takeaways:

  • As we approach 2021, there is no real clarity about if – or for how long – school closures will continue. 
  • Online learning has been accelerated by Covid. Many students prefer face-to-face learning – but some online aspects are here to stay.
  • A key challenge for many families was a lack of access to electronic devices and high-speed internet connections.
  • A year of home learning has exacerbated existing inequalities. One US study found some groups were set back three to five months of missed education.
  • Universities have struggled with students on locked-down campuses, although there are examples of university lockdowns done right.

After ten months of Covid, uncertainty continues to rock the education sector

As 2020 draws to a close, the soaring rates of Covid in the UK are creating growing uncertainty about which – if any – school pupils will return to face-to-face learning in January. Several local authorities in London have been highly critical of the perceived lack of logic behind the government’s list of areas where primary schools will not reopen at the start of the new year. Areas with some of the lowest infection rates in London will not open, while other boroughs with high rates have been told they must keep schools open. The charge being levelled at the government is that of a failure to protect primary age pupils.


The world has pivoted to online learning

A Times Higher Education report in early March showed just how quickly attitudes to online learning changed under the necessity of providing education remotely. 

The author highlighted that only two years previously, the majority of respondents to a survey about the future of online higher education had been fully convinced that online learning would never replace face-to-face as the most popular means of education. By mid-March, millions of Chinese school and university students were being taught online. Lecturers, administrative staff and students had fully adopted new communication and education technologies – to be followed a couple of weeks later by UK students. 

Online learning hampered by lack of access to technology

Experts are warning that the pandemic will create a ‘lost generation of students’ as families on both sides of the Atlantic have struggled with internet connections and access to electronic devices to facilitate their children’s online learning. 

Although the nationwide lockdown had ended, self-isolation requirements due to contact with confirmed cases meant that more than 680,000 state-educated pupils in England were receiving their education remotely every day in the latter half of November. 

In America, a slew of new studies show that the education deficit created by the pandemic is hitting those on low incomes and students of colour the hardest.

Higher education has moved online – but at what cost? 

University lecturers have been forced to get to grips with the realities of online learning. This has thrown up two distinct cost issues. 

First is the cost to the mental health of university students who were locked down on campuses for much of the year. Many of them have reported feeling isolated and lonely. It has also been reported that lots of students have been defying the government’s lockdown instructions and have travelled between campus and their hometowns to escape the on-campus isolation. Action is being taken at the sector level to ensure students’ physical and emotional needs are being met during these periods.

Secondly, for many students, the change in delivery method has raised the question of why they are not being offered a discount on their education, now that online learning has replaced face-to-face lectures and lab time. Many universities, however, have already been pushed to their financial limits by the pandemic and will continue to face financial pressures for several years to come.

Education in 2021 – what comes next?

As we stand on the precipice of a new year, still in the grip of the first global pandemic in over a century, we can expect the education sector to continue to adapt, evolve and find innovative solutions to safeguard the learning of future generations.

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