Are Schools Delivering What Really Matters?

Covid-19 has significantly changed the way we all live, work and learn - students included. To protect and support future generations, we must equip today’s children with the right skills to navigate a changing world. An opinion piece by Bruce Neale, Managing Director, International, Oxford University Press.
Are Schools Delivering What Really Matters?
By David Westley
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It goes without saying that the pandemic has significantly changed the way we all live, work and learn. But for children, the impact of these changes could be both profound and lasting. To protect and support future generations, we must equip today’s children with the right skills to navigate a changing world, writes Bruce Neale, Managing Director, International, Oxford University Press.

Mr Neale's article is part of a series of articles on the future of education, and follow the submission by Matthew Farthing, Principal of Nord Anglia School Dubai, on what the future of education could look like if the starting point was a curricula best able to equip students for the very different world of tomorrow...

Since the outbreak of Covid-19, 188 countries—including the UAE—have, at some point, imposed countrywide school closures, affecting more than 1.6 billion young people. The latest KHDA report shows that 53% of pupils in Dubai are still undertaking blended learning, while 47% continue to study through full-time distance learning. Although teachers, students, and parents alike have adapted well – and at pace – to embrace online learning and change, we cannot really know what lies ahead of us.

Around the globe, young people’s mental health was a concern before the pandemic with a rise in those reporting symptoms of anxiety and depression. Evidence suggests this has substantially worsened; data from Save the Children revealed that children worldwide are at risk of lasting psychological distress due to coronavirus, while academics at the University of Bath say this negative impact could continue for 10 years or more.

The pandemic has shone a light on the importance of making sure children feel supported so that they can cope and adapt to this unknown future. And that means looking for opportunities for them to develop valuable life skills such as resilience, adaptability and lateral thinking.

Fundamentally, it’s about unlocking children’s potential in a climate that is unrecognisable from 12 months ago. We don’t know what the job market will look like in 10 or even five years’ time; many previously established industries are unlikely to re-emerge exactly as they were. It’s no surprise that a UK study by University College London revealed that three-quarters of young adults feel worried about their future plans - sentiment that will likely be shared by young adults all over the world.

If we are to foster confidence and optimism, and create better outcomes for students’ long-term success, they need to be happy being challenged, able to acquire new skills quickly, and open to seeking new adventures. And that means helping them to discover the happiness learning can bring, and encouraging them to develop essential life skills, such as creative problem-solving and interpersonal skills, to thrive in an ever-changing world.

Instead of focusing solely on academic attainment, education—whether it’s delivered at home or in a classroom—should evolve to develop core personal skills and wellbeing, especially as participation in social and emotional learning programmes has been to shown to improve academic achievement by the equivalent of 11%.

We believe that parents and carers have a valuable role to play here. They have become much closer to their children’s learning as a result of lockdown, and will likely have to continue playing a key role in supporting distanced learning.

Many will have already been taking steps to create the optimum learning environment for their children, and this should be encouraged and indeed celebrated; providing the right level of support as well as the right environment can help to ensure that children are studying in a context that supports and encourages positive mental health and wellbeing. The UAE’s ministry of education has provided an important foundation with its Smart Learning Portal, designed to bring teachers, students, and parents together to apply new methods of teaching.

Of course, it cannot be solely the responsibility of parents. Schools, teachers, and education providers should also taking steps to support a broader learning experience too, to complement the work of parents and carers. At OUP, we are currently piloting our new Oxford International Curriculum across multiple schools in eight countries including the UAE.

The Oxford International Curriculum has been designed to provide a holistic approach to learning. Alongside the core subjects of English, Maths, Science, and Computing are courses on Wellbeing and Global Skills Projects, which cover taking care of the body and mind, encouraging positive relationships, and fostering self-development skills. We developed it because we recognised that whole-school approaches to promoting wellbeing can have positive effects on educational outcomes, including mental health, self-esteem, self-efficacy, motivation, behaviour, and decreased probability of dropout. Awareness of the need to support personalisation and wellbeing in education is increasing and we need approaches to learning that reflect this.

Effective education has always been about more than achieving good grades. It is about preparing young people, to help them thrive and contribute to wider society. With so much uncertainty ahead, we need the next generation to be confident in themselves and in their ability to grow and develop, whatever it throws at them.

Although we cannot predict the future, parents—as well as teachers and educators—have a vital role to play in helping young people navigate this changing world. Instead of focusing solely on academic attainment, education—whether it’s delivered at home or in a classroom—must evolve to develop core personal skills and wellbeing.

Bruce Neale is the Managing Director, International, Oxford University Press, working within the Education division. He has more than 30 years’ experience in supporting education and improving outcomes for learners of all ages across the world. He has a particular interest in ensuring learner wellbeing throughout the education journey.

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