Over the past year, the world of education has adapted to challenges that no one could have predicted. The pandemic has caused the entire sector to change. There has been a huge shift to online working, new modes of assessment, and more emphasis being placed on certain subjects.

The education system continues to evolve to face the challenges of remote teaching and we are left wondering what the future will hold for education in the UK.

Is this a blip, or will we see the patterns that have developed this year continue?

The Shift to Online

We've seen schools, colleges, and universities move much of their teaching online in the last 12 months. For some, this digital way of learning has been extremely challenging. For others, however, online learning has proved efficient, practical, and engaging. For one thing, digital learning negates a long journey to school or college, the need to worry about uniforms or lunches, and social anxiety or stress connected to school. What's more, the reach of virtual learning allows experts to be present and reach students they might not normally have been involved with. These perks of online learning make a case for the shift to online to continue, even after the pandemic.

On the contrary, however, virtual learning has its drawbacks, and many do not want to see it continue in the future. For instance, online teaching is widening the gap between advantaged and disadvantaged students because having access to a laptop is essential for this mode of learning. Speaking on the subject, David Laws, former Liberal Democrats Schools Minister and Head of the Education Policy Institute, said “there’s a risk we could wipe out the gains in closing that gap that we’ve made over the last 15 years.”

In addition, online learning can have a negative impact on the mental wellbeing of college and university students who are missing out on the social side of their education. According to the Office of National Statistics, 53% per cent of UK students reported being dissatisfied or very dissatisfied with their social experience in the autumn term.  If a fully online system of education is only set to widen the gap of student advantage and disadvantage and leave some students feeling socially isolated, perhaps a hybrid model is a viable option for the future of education.

New modes of examination

A positive that has come from the impact of the pandemic on education, is that schools and colleges have been pushed to rethink how students are tested. Due to the pandemic, many GCSE and A-Level exams have been replaced by stringent teacher assessment. If this were to continue — as some, such as Kenneth Baker, former UK Secretary of State for Education argue it should — a tremendous amount of exam-related stress would be relieved from students. Baker makes the point that intense summer exams can sometimes come down merely to a memory test. For many students, teacher assessment might more accurately reflect their abilities.

The re-thinking of examination methods has also been a theme in higher education. Instead of hundreds of students completing their exams in an exam hall, many are now being tested via online open-book exams. There are numerous benefits to this. Not only is writing on a computer quicker, but the practice of referencing materials to support knowledge is arguably a more relevant skill than a memory test. 

Interest in certain subjects

Another factor that the pandemic has had an impact on is the popularity and necessity of certain subjects. During the last year, the people of the UK have shown their appreciation of the heroes of the front line more than ever before. Due to this, it is likely that we will see a greater number of students showing an interest in subjects related to key worker positions, such as nursing and police work. This trend doesn't only apply to school-aged people. After the pandemic many adults are also likely to consider different career options. This trend is set to lead in an increased interest in adult study courses.

In relation to the recent popularity of certain subjects at Newcastle College Principal Scott Bullock said:

“The events of the past twelve months have not only affected the way that we deliver further and higher education, but have no doubt given young people and adults a lot to think about when it comes to their future and their next steps. The government focus on skills has also highlighted the opportunities available through vocational training.

“Here at Newcastle College we have seen an increase in applications to courses such as policing, our applied engineering and other STEM-based subjects, while our childcare and health and social care courses have remained as popular as ever. It is also fantastic that we have seen an increased interest in our creative courses, as we can all appreciate how much we have relied on the arts industry to keep us entertained during the pandemic.”

Another trend we are likely to see in future is schools encouraging more of their students to take technical courses. In order to rebuild the economy after the pandemic, science, technology, engineering, computer science, and maths skills will be more essential than ever. We are likely to see more students taking such subjects at an early stage. 

There's no doubt that the pandemic has made us re-think our education system here in the UK. Although it has proved an immense challenge so far, the pandemic has also caused us to reassess the current system. These lessons can now be taken forward to help improve education for all ages in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic.

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