1. Education actors should nurture resilient mind-sets that value people and processes over classrooms and devices

With the COVID-19 outbreak in 2020, people, governments and economies around the world suddenly were met with a new normal. The old normal is not coming back; the looming economic crisis and current state of limbo as the world awaits a vaccine guarantee that. Before yearning for it, we should keep in mind that the often bureaucratic, hierarchical and standardised education systems of the old normal were not successfully meeting the needs of all learners in the 21st century. The priority for all those who play a role in education around the world today is hence not merely to re-establish the status quo, but to adopt a mind-set of flexibility and change, identifying and supporting approaches, both old and new, that can strengthen education and training. The insights countries have gained while handling the COVID-19 crisis therefore offer crucial foundations on which to build a new normal.

Firstly, the crisis has drawn increased attention to the notion that learning is relational and social, and not transactional. As governments ordered institutional closures, the implementation of emergency education reminded us more than ever that learning can occur anywhere and at any time. At the height of national lockdowns, countries mobilised alternative modes of teaching and learning on a massive scale: distance learning via the Internet, television, radio and even postal networks. Now, even as institutions reopen, traditional in-person approaches combine with online and other distance methods in new hybrid models. The crisis has therefore forced new flexibility into the two basic organising, as well as constraining, constructs of modern education systems: time and space (Fullan et al., 2020[1]). It reminds us that effective learning is more about relationships and mind-sets than it is about physical spaces or instruments. Moving forward, identifying how effective student learning processes and interactions can take place in contexts of disruption, as well as nurturing them with the right support systems, is a key priority for governments.

Secondly, the emergency response proved that education systems are not too heavy to move. Certainly, education reform is difficult; the unique scale and reach of the sector entails that competing opinions and vested interests often impede or divert policy implementation. Furthermore, the very nature of education generally results in a substantial lag between the time at which the initial cost of reform is incurred and that at which intended benefits materialise (or not) (Schleicher, 2018[2]). During the early stages of the pandemic, however, students, educators and administrators found themselves adapting to a completely new way of organising teaching and learning- in some cases overnight- and the world learned that big changes can happen quickly, even in education. As education systems continue to navigate uncharted waters in the second half of 2020, anyone with a stake in education delivery must hold this new truth in view: education can be more, education can be different, education can be better.

Finally, this deep global disruption emphasises the need for greater resilience. Having exposed the frailties of the complex systems of the 21st century and their single-minded pursuit of efficiency, the current crisis has brought resilience and preparedness to the forefront of public consciousness (OECD, 2020[3]). This amplifies ongoing disruption caused by other more localised crises that have affected countries to varying degrees in recent years, alongside the threat of disruption posed by an increasingly volatile global context. Only resilient education systems that plan for disruption, and withstand and recover from adverse events, will be able to fulfil the fundamental human right to education, whatever the circumstances, and foster the level of human capital required by successful economies. At the same time, resilient education systems develop resilient individuals who adjust to everyday challenges, play an active role in their communities, and respond to an increasingly volatile, uncertain and ambiguous global landscape (Schleicher, 2019[4]).With these three new insights in mind, policy makers can begin shaping policy responses that simultaneously address the needs of the new normal while shifting education practices towards a better normal. To support this process of nurturing new resilient mind-sets, the next section analyses the current state of play in 44 participating education systems across schools, vocational education and training (VET) settings and higher education institutions.

Along with other contextual differences, the varied extent to which the COVID-19 pandemic is currently affecting countries shapes education responses in different ways. Nevertheless, some similarities have emerged and education actors can benefit from a comparative overview of the common challenges faced by their peers and the solutions being mobilised. This section explores how well-positioned education systems were prior to the crisis to strengthen learning through promoting people and processes, and identifies trends in the organisation of the current academic period in terms of the physical delivery of education services and the adaptation of pedagogical practices. Building on ongoing work by the Education Policy Outlook, it provides insights into how the guidance produced by governments in the second half of 2020 is helping to shift practices towards greater responsiveness and resilience in education.

Education actors need to move towards a new mind-set that embraces the relational nature of learning beyond the four walls of an educational institution, but also beyond the screens of online classes. International data from the pre-crisis period can help policy makers identify system strengths and potential challenges to move towards this goal (see Figure 1.1). For example, data from the OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) 2018 shows that the vast majority (89%) of students have both a computer for school work and internet connection at home, but a much lower share of principals (65%) report that their teachers have the technical and pedagogical skills required to effectively integrate digital devices in instruction. Similarly, on average, less than two-thirds of students across the OECD (63%) showed a growth mind-set (i.e. these students disagreed or strongly disagreed that "your intelligence is something about you that you can’t change very much”), which is increasingly appearing critical for more autonomous approaches to learning. Across the OECD, socio-economically disadvantaged learners and schools performed lower for each of these indicators.

Another imbalance is that although there appears to be a strong openness to change at the level of education institutions, the conditions that allow this change to become a reality do not always exist. Some 85% of principals across the OECD consider that their schools readily accept new ideas, yet only 42% report that their staff have a significant level of responsibility in school policy, curriculum and instruction. Finally, Figure 1.1 also indicates that, prior to the crisis, there was untapped potential to strengthen synergies between the different settings in which students learn: students’ learning in the workplace and relationships with parents were underdeveloped, as was system-level monitoring of school performance.

Such imbalances will need to be addressed. Successfully shifting practices in education requires a level of collective momentum only achieved when every component of the policy eco-system is working in the same direction. In the emergency conditions imposed by the COVID-19 crisis, such initial direction was clear: protect the health of learners, education providers and their families while ensuring at least a minimum level of continued education and care. Looking to the recovery phase, however, competing needs between actors make tensions more likely to arise, while governments also need to set priorities for the short and longer term, balancing the urgent and the important. Efforts to ensure alignment across the education policy eco-system may therefore require more conscious steering from the centre. These challenges were also highlighted by participants in the Education Policy Reform Dialogues 2020. Delegates agreed that the COVID-19 crisis had accelerated both thinking and action in education, substantially shifting attitudes within education systems in key areas of longer-term change- such as digitalisation and assessment- where there had previously been a certain level of resistance. They outlined that the challenge would be to maintain this sense of responsiveness and change in normal times as a key feature of resilience. To this end, participants noted the role of policy makers in ensuring that appropriate system-level mechanisms and means of co-ordination, steering and alignment are in place to enable local action to flourish.

The key components of policy eco-systems that must be aligned include core policy priorities, the existing context of the system, and key actors and the systemic arrangements required to make policies feasible and effective (OECD, 2018[8]). Policy priorities reflect the main challenges a system faces: wider structural factors such as demographic or economic developments, and system goals for the short, mid and long term. The existing context includes both the political structure and the social, cultural, and economic environments within which the education system operates. Key actors may be both decision makers and implementers, whose efforts are mediated through multi-directional interactions across central, regional and local levels. All these actors need to be engaged effectively in policy processes, fostering a sense of ownership and willingness to change, as well as the capacity to make that change happen (OECD, 2015[9]). Finally, for policy implementation to be successful, policy makers must ensure institutional alignment with a shared long-term vision and well-planned policy monitoring or evaluation processes that can provide insight into the factors that favour or hinder successful reform implementation (OECD, 2018[8])

In normal times, achieving such alignment requires a considerable time investment in building consensus around priorities and vision, shaping a conducive context and organising wide stakeholder engagement. The emergency imposed by the COVID-19 crisis, however, initially demanded a more speedy, and indeed, more concerted response, with policy makers relying on readily available resources and the existing capacity of schools and their staff (Gouëdard, Pont and Viennet, 2020[10]). The current moment requires something between the two: education systems must mobilise knowledge at hand to identify the strengths on which they can rely for progress, as well as the gaps they must fill for such progress to be solid.

See: Annex 1. Links to government sources on delivery methods in the second half of 2020.

As countries transitioned out of the initial emergency phase, strategies to reopen educational institutions have entailed a difficult balancing act. Governments have been facing the need to carefully weigh up the obvious educational and economic benefits to students, families and societies against potentially adverse effects on health and well-being (Reimers and Schleicher, 2020[11]). Reducing mixing between students, along with localised closures and quarantine and self-isolation measures for infected students and their contacts have been used as alternatives to help to minimise risks, but will continue to disrupt education for months (OECD, 2020[12]). Moreover, adapting to different modes of delivery requires rebalancing education resources, as well as ensuring that home environments are conducive to learning, and that teaching staff can effectively deliver instruction, whatever the learning environment. Moving forward, it is therefore essential that policy makers nurture new mind-sets that promote effective learning by valuing people and processes over physical spaces and devices. Such mind-sets will help learners and educators to transition flexibly between delivery models as required. But to what extent is this already happening?

In August and September 2020, the Education Policy Outlook conducted desk-based research to identify the current state of play in primary, secondary and post-secondary education among participating countries. Taking place six months after the COVID-19 virus was declared a global pandemic, this offers an insight into governments’ priorities for education as systems move out of the initial emergency education response. Therefore, although the rapidly evolving context means delivery models continue to change, the following analysis offers an indication of possible future directions and changing mind-sets in education.

In most school systems analysed, national governments established a single, favoured approach to educational delivery for September 2020, whether that be fully remote, fully on-site or hybrid (see Figure 1.2). Such decisions took the form of an official legislative order, a formal recommendation, or guidelines for institutions and local authorities. Within this, most countries allowed for alternative measures at regional, municipal or institutional level, in accordance with the evolution of the virus. In Austria, a regional corona traffic light system was put in place to outline contingency measures for schools according to infection levels in the local area. In Scotland (United Kingdom), all young people had returned to school full-time in line with national guidance on safe reopening. However, local authorities and schools became in charge of responding to local incidents and outbreaks following local health advice and guidance; this approach saw a small number of schools close temporarily, be it on a precautionary basis or due to self-isolation requirements.

The majority of education systems analysed returned schools to a system of on-site delivery with no constraints specific to the organisation of teaching and learning. In these cases, although students and staff returning to school campuses followed new health and safety measures, these did not require, at least formally, significant adaptations to the organisation of teaching and learning. Such measures might include wearing a mask for teachers and some students, social distancing in non-classroom environments, and stricter cleaning regulations. In France, it became mandatory for staff and students in secondary education to wear masks and for schools to follow protocols regarding hand hygiene, cleaning and ventilation. Wherever possible, regulations specified that indoor spaces must be organised to allow one metre between individuals. In all these education systems, distance learning could possibly be delivered to a minority of students in self-isolation or in quarantine, and, in some countries, relaxed attendance requirements aimed to allow parents to decide whether to send children back to school or not. For example, as of 01 September 2020, with the whole of New Zealand on alert level two, schools had to provide on-site learning, as well as distance provisions for those self-isolating, waiting for a test result or choosing to remain at home because they are vulnerable to illness.

Another large group of education systems could allow students to remain on-site with constraints specific to the organisation of teaching and learning. This included limiting interactions between students by establishing contact bubbles, which might require splitting normal class sizes, reducing or modifying curricula, or adjusting timetables. For example, in Wales (United Kingdom), schools were advised to reduce contact between learners where possible, and many schools started operating individual class bubbles so that students in one class would not associate with those in another.

In addition, there were some examples of hybrid approaches, with adaptations depending on the education level taught or the evolution of the virus at subnational level. In Israel and Turkey, the youngest primary level students were prioritised for on-site learning, while hybrid or fully remote solutions remained in place for older students. In Canada, there was variation across provinces and territories, as well as across grades in some cases, in terms of how teaching and learning were conducted. Many provinces and territories implemented a full return to in-person classes; in others, hybrid approaches were implemented for certain grades. From August, primary and secondary schools in Korea offered both on- and offline classes; provincial offices of education and schools have the autonomy to decide on the balance while adhering to the government’s social distancing measures and guidelines. Similarly, in Latvia, most schools welcomed students back on site, but those schools unable to adhere to the bubble system may have had to deliver part of the curriculum online. Around one-fifth of schools, mostly upper secondary, do so. In Brazil, children in some federal states returned to school, but on a reduced or alternating basis, while in others, education remained virtual.

Indeed, at the other end of the spectrum, a few education systems continued to operate a fully remote system. These were all in Latin America, where infection levels remained high in September. These systems aimed to ensure continued education through the internet, television, radio and other remote measures. Mexico’s Learning at Home initiative was put in place to provide pedagogical continuity for 25 million students from preschool, primary and secondary education despite unequal internet access, by mobilising televisual and radio programming (Florencia Ripani and Zuchetti, 2020[13]).

When comparing approaches that governments followed by educational level in September, analysis showed that these often differed between the school level and the post-secondary level. At post-secondary level, approaches varied more substantially between and within education systems (Figure 1.3). Higher education institutions (HEIs) in OECD countries generally have full or substantial autonomy. As such, although governmental advice or guidelines regarding education delivery from September 2020 were generally in place, the final decision rested in the hands of individual institutions. Furthermore, institutions cater for a range of students and might have different delivery models in place for domestic and international students, for example.

Unlike in school education in September, most post-secondary education systems were operating a hybrid model, with the majority favouring in-person delivery complemented by online means where social distancing rules could not be met. For example, in Australia, where the national government implemented a three-step plan to ease restrictions that states and territories might implement based on their own COVID-19 conditions, each step would encourage universities and technical colleges to increase in-person delivery and prioritise hands-on, skills-based learning, wherever safe to do so.

Other education systems started operating hybrid models that appeared to lean more towards online delivery. In Germany, the federal states and universities focused on digital offers with on-site provision for practical and experiment-based learning, as well as introductory courses. In Kazakhstan, HEIs could operate under full distance learning measures or a hybrid approach. In other education systems, no single approach dominated, with considerable diversity required both between and within institutions. For example, in Ireland, approaches could vary across programmes according to the teaching and learning needs of various disciplines, the size of student groups, and the balance of practical and theoretical learning outcomes.

As at school level over the same period, some European education systems re-instated a fully on-site model for higher education, with safety measures such as masks for staff and students, social distancing measures across campus, and stricter cleaning regulations. Many non-teaching activities remained off-campus or were not offered. Recommendations in Portugal emphasised that in-person teaching and assessment should remain the main method of instruction but that institutions should also experiment with innovative teaching and learning practices, in which in-person education became supported by digital technologies. Hungary recommended that HEIs receive all healthy students and staff on site from September onwards, with full adherence to health and safety rules such as hand hygiene and wearing masks, as well as maintaining 1.5 metres between people in indoor environments, wherever possible.

At the moment of finalising this report, perhaps the only certainty when it comes to the delivery of education is that uncertainty prevails; the landscape across participating education systems is in an ongoing state of flux. For example, in October, Wales (United Kingdom) announced a two-week “firebreak lockdown” in which, following one week of school holidays, only learners in pre-primary, primary and lower secondary education would return to on-site learning, with distance provision for older students. Some countries with traffic light systems, including Austria, Belgium and Poland, have moved to full-distance or hybrid models of learning for secondary students as infection rates rise. British Colombia (Canada), has maintained on-site learning for all students but has introduced a grouping system wherein clusters of students and staff (20-30 students) will primarily interact with one another for the remainder of 2020.

At post-secondary level, many governments have been forced to commit to more substantial changes in approach. In October, France announced that all higher institutions must switch to fully remote instruction, with exceptions for essential practical training only, and then only at half the usual student capacity. In Poland, higher education institutions also switched to fully remote instruction, except for planned classes for the final year of study and for essential practical training. In Iceland, universities have adopted a bubble system, where a maximum of 10 students maintain contact only with those within their assigned group. Overall, then, in contrast to the wholesale lockdowns of the first wave, governments appear to be responding to rising infection levels in light of both new scientific knowledge of the virus and its impact on children and young people, and new educational knowledge of the capacities and limits of technology and the impact of institutional closures on students and their families.

In terms of the physical delivery of education in September, education systems do appear to have been making use of various delivery methods for the second half of 2020. This became particularly evident at post-secondary level. Moreover, many education systems recognised that one size does not fit all; students of different ages, living in different places and studying different programmes have different needs, and these needs will change depending on the infection rate in their local community. Ultimately, while national-level guidance is important, local and institutional responsiveness are key, and most education systems- especially at post-secondary level- encourage institutions to adapt regulations, recommendations and guidelines to suit their own contexts.

However, this can lead to inconsistencies in provision, causing further challenges for policy makers. The traffic light systems mentioned above, which establish a systematic framework to be applied to all future scenarios are thus helpful in establishing some consistency and clarity. They can also help reduce the decision-making burden placed on local actors. Nevertheless, such adaptive approaches demand the active support of all stakeholders local administrators, educators, students and parents – who must be prepared to adjust their routines, perhaps and often with little notice. This requires strong stakeholder relationships built on trust, clear communication and transparency. Such relationships are not built overnight, but stakeholder and expert consultation to support decision making can help (Gouëdard, Pont and Viennet, 2020[10]).

Ultimately, measures that showed greater openness to promoting people and processes over places and devices remained reactive; decisions were made according to the trajectory of the virus. In a better normal, such decisions will need to draw from knowledge about the pedagogical value of each mode of delivery, as well as efforts to strengthen the engagement and effective capacity of education actors to make it happen. This requires co-ordinated efforts now, at national and international level, to collect evidence about what works, when and for whom. Furthermore, as countries work to move forward into a better normal, they also need to remain open to adopting approaches that go beyond a binary delivery of education: online or in-person. A much wider spectrum of teaching and learning modes will need to play an increasingly central role in the repertoire of education systems. This includes work-based learning, community-based approaches and non-formal learning, among others. To this end, it is important to have a clear understanding of the resource constraints and possibilities facing the relevant actors for each mode of delivery (Gouëdard, Pont and Viennet, 2020[10]).

Similar challenges were raised and discussed at the Education Policy Reform Dialogues 2020. Delegates noted that local capacity and initiative is key for education resilience. Policy makers therefore play a critical role in ensuring that appropriate system mechanisms are in place to enable local action to flourish, but also that means of system-level co-ordination, steering and alignment are effective enough to facilitate consistency. Delegates suggested that having government officials listen and learn from key stakeholders could help to ensure that this steering is effective. They also emphasised that consistent and transparent information sharing with all stakeholders is crucial when enhancing flexibility, enabling people to support that flexibility but also to make full use of it. Furthermore, in respect to higher education in particular, although it was noted that there is now a greater will for or acceptance of digital education among education actors, delegates emphasised that rethinking and redesigning the instruction model takes time and resources.

See Annex 2. Links to governments’ main system-level guidelines for the second half of 2020

As the previous section shows, some hybrid modes of delivery appear to be here to stay, at least for the short term, but these models of education do not guarantee improved student learning. Indeed, evidence suggests that technology-based initiatives are more likely to reinforce existing pedagogical approaches, rather than reframe them (OECD, 2020[14]). Policy makers will therefore need to shift educational practices in key policy areas that go beyond the delivery of learning in order to stimulate wider, long-lasting change. In this way, flexible approaches to teaching and learning can move from being an emergency response to the crisis to being at the heart of a reimagined system.

To what extent are education systems already working to shift educational practices, and what policy levers for change emerge? Through analysis of the system-level guidelines in place in 43 education systems from primary to post-secondary levels, 4 key areas of policy responses can be identified as driving education forwards in the recovery period (Figure 1.4). These areas are also relevant to the current work of the Education Policy Outlook on responsiveness and resilience in education (see Introduction and Annex 3).

Firstly, governments appear to have been embracing more personalised and flexible approaches to learning. In their guidelines put in place in September 2020, most education systems promote multiple delivery methods, predominantly in-person or online. To encourage greater flexibility, others have been adjusting regulatory structures, such as curriculum hours or academic calendars, or adapting curriculum planning at system, institution or teacher level. This generally involves prioritisation processes to help students achieve essential outcomes. Some guidelines analysed explicitly promote personalised learning plans, mostly for students with specific needs, and a few include guidance related to developing students’ capacity for autonomous learning. In their guidelines, a smaller number of countries encourage educators to adopt cross-curricular, thematic or project-based approaches to continue exposing students to a range of subjects despite time constraints. Slovenia recommended that school teachers develop individual learning plans for any students who have major knowledge gaps and then create flexible learning environments that allow for group or individual implementation of these plans and for students to have some autonomy over what and when they will learn. Korea introduced an intensive learning system in vocational education to allow students to organise their own academic timetable, helping them to complete courses in a shorter timeframe, with theoretical elements online and practical elements in person.

However, in all these guidelines, it is less clear how accountability and capacity-building measures will be applied to help ensure quality and consistency across institutions, and how educators are being supported at the institutional level to manage the extra demands that flexibility and personalisation place on them. Prior to the crisis, less than half (47%) of lower-secondary teachers across the OECD engaged in professional development activities related to individualised learning in the 12 months prior to the OECD’s Teaching and Learning International Survey (TALIS) 2018. In addition, this, along with teaching students with special educational needs and multilingual or multicultural groups of learners, was among the top five priorities for professional learning, as reported by teachers (OECD, 2019[15]).

Furthermore, while learning may be becoming more personalised, there is less evidence in these guidelines of the development of more responsive and permeable pathways through and beyond the system. This may in part reflect the under-representation of guidelines specific to higher and vocational education. Indeed, insights from the OECD’s Higher Education Policy team on recent innovations in alternative credentialing suggests that there may be growing flexibility at this level (see Box 1).

Secondly, many countries have been developing partnerships beyond education institutions. Strong relationships with parents, employers and the community will help education systems bring together the different environments in which students learn to strengthen more personalised learning approaches. In their system-level guidelines, many education systems stress the importance of maintaining clear and regular communication with parents. Some provide specific ideas for facilitating this, including communications strategies and templates, along with recommended digital tools. A smaller group promote deeper collaboration, such as involving parents of younger learners in planning teaching content, holding regular conversations about student progress or consulting parents to inform decision making. Colombia’s guidelines promote the recently published Family-School Alliance strategy (2020), which furthers the principle of co-responsibility in education and care. This includes guidance for strengthening the relationship between families and the school, a communication strategy with key messaging, recommendations and information for families, and a website aimed at supporting families to strengthen their capacities for care and education.

Some education systems also encourage work with local partners in their guidelines, including education or youth workers in the local community, or specialist professionals who support students with specific needs. The French Community of Belgium invites schools to collaborate with a broad network of actors involved in extra-curricular activities, such as those working in supervised homework settings, youth centres, or other private and non-profit educational services. The government calls upon local education administrations and other public services to support this collaboration.

While it is encouraging that many guidelines promote the role of parents, education systems could offer more formalised approaches to parental engagement at institution or system level. Prior to the crisis, there were indications of a decline in parental engagement in some areas: according to principals’ reports in PISA 2018, the share of parents engaging in local school governance or volunteering for physical or extra-curricular activities declined slightly between 2015 and 2018 (OECD, 2019[21]). Nevertheless, just over three-quarters of teachers participating in TALIS 2018 reported that their school provides parents with opportunities to actively participate in school decisions (OECD, 2020[22]). During the emergency period, Latvia used online parental surveys to gather feedback, which later informed guidance and support. Such efforts provide valuable rapid feedback loops to schools and governments that help strengthen implementation (OECD, 2020[23]). Another possibility could be to involve parents in the development of reopening or contingency plans which can strengthen the emergency preparedness of both institutions and families (Burns and Gottschalk, 2020[24]).

It would also be valuable to see more practical advice for institutions on developing partnerships with the private sector and local employers to support work-based learning in VET, facilitate transitions into employment, or collaborate with digital specialists. Governments should take decisive action to protect young people from the economic fallout of the pandemic. In the context of reduced demand, many employers will be less willing to take on new staff, and are likely to reduce staffing on a last in/first out basis. Moreover, young people are also more likely to work in jobs that are at a high risk of automation (Schoon and Mann, 2020[25]). In this context, many students, employees and job seekers will be looking to reassess their options or change paths. Ongoing work from the OECD’s VET team offers further insight into key areas of action (see Box 2).

Building capacity for change across the system is a third clear area of policy action in the guidelines. Education systems have been seeking to develop system capacity for digital education. Many systems have continued to strengthen the digital tools and infrastructure available to the education sector. This has most commonly involved guidance or advice related to online education, either through the guidelines themselves or by directing educators to other sources of information, but also the provision of digital equipment. For educators, several systems have adapted or introduced online professional development opportunities, particularly in relation to strengthening digital skills. A large share of guidelines advise educators on the type of digital solutions to adopt, with some education systems facilitating this by standardising access through a single portal or conducting quality assessments to guide educators’ decision making. At school level, Germany has recommended that state authorities conduct a screening and evaluation of existing software and digital learning materials according to uniform, research-based criteria. Austria developed a range of training courses to prepare teachers for the introduction of a uniform one-stop digital platform for all schools from September. Complementing this, teachers could also access a massive open online course (MOOC) covering the organisation of distance learning, the use of digital platforms, the development of digital content, and communication with parents.

In general, the guidelines indicate that many education systems aim to move beyond simply digitising and collating educational resources for educators, as was common in the emergency phase. Rather, systems now promoted the use of more sophisticated technology, including tools for synchronous learning and peer collaboration. However, a greater emphasis was placed on technical or operational elements of more flexible approaches to learning, as opposed to pedagogical; this is particularly true for vocational and higher education. At school level, at least, this was also evident in the pre-crisis period. In PISA 2018, nearly two-thirds (62%) of school principals reported that their school had a written statement about the use of digital devices in place, but less than half (46%) reported the existence of a pedagogically oriented statement. Meanwhile, only just over one-third (36%) had a specific programme in place to promote teacher collaboration on the use of digital devices (OECD, 2020[30]).

Furthermore, although all education systems have endeavoured in their guidelines to provide support to educators, the focus has tended to be largely limited to developing digital skills; there are fewer measures identified to develop capacities for more personalised approaches to learning or bridging learning gaps. Moreover, there appears to be insufficient guidance regarding educator well-being. This is particularly important given that, even prior to the crisis, the highest reported causes of work-related stress among lower-secondary teachers and principals were excess administrative work and changing requirements from local, municipal/regional, state or national/ federal authorities, as well as, for teachers, being held responsible for student achievement and too much marking (OECD, 2020[22]). In the context of the pandemic, a small number of education systems have been recruiting auxiliary staff to lighten the extra workload, while others have made efforts to adapt the role of local or regional advisors in order to support with implementation challenges. For instance, through Japan’s Human Resources Bank for Supporting Schools and Children initiative, depending on the infection rate in the region, schools may be assigned support staff to help with lesson preparation, parental communications and health management. Furthermore, additional classroom support instructors can be recruited from the national pool of retired teachers, cram-school teachers, university students and other education-related staff. Generally, however, efforts to support educators do not seem to be developing their wider capacities for change, including their resilience. Lesson two explores this issue in more detail.

Finally, countries have made efforts to ensure that all students can engage in and benefit from learning. Many education systems’ guidelines include advice or measures for recovering and mitigating learning gaps. A large number have issued guidance on diagnosing learning needs on the return to in-person education. This then informs the implementation of remedial measures, which often take the form of additional learning time through extended provision on site or supplementary online learning, specialised provision for students with specific language or educational needs, and individual coaching, mentoring or supervision. As schools reopened in Portugal, teachers were expected to meet students individually to discuss progress during remote education and identify learning gaps. This informed the development of individual learning portfolios that outline each student’s study plan and allows for more personalised monitoring by the designated teacher.

Many education systems are engaging in a much broader collection of student information for the second half of 2020, with substantial guidance for student assessment approaches. This includes promoting formative assessment strategies such as student self-assessment, regular teacher feedback and assessment-focused dialogue, and learning portfolios, as well as the diagnostic approaches outlined above. There is also some guidance on approaches to assessment for digital learning, including monitoring participation, implementing regular progress checks and using specific online tools for assessing and reporting on student progress. Some countries have also considered the role of assessment in hybrid delivery models and the implications for parity, academic integrity and clarity. However, the guidance provided rarely covers best practice in the dissemination or use of data on student progress, particularly by students themselves, and institutions. At school level, Chile promotes student-centred conferences between teachers, parents and students, and the use of learning portfolios, but has also developed several digital assessment tools. Student Online Learning assessments have aimed to allow students to send their results in core subjects to the teacher weekly and receive feedback, and specific digital assessment tools have been put in place to enable teachers to prepare their own online assessments for certain subjects, based on the key learning objectives of the curriculum.

To develop resilience, it is also critical that, when supporting learners, education systems understand and strengthen the internal world of the student. Among the few countries whose guidelines promote student well-being as critical in establishing the conditions for learning, particularly in the initial return to in-person teaching, two main approaches were identified: promoting the provision of specialist professional support, and encouraging educators to plan teaching and learning with well-being in mind. Ireland advises schools to plan for more collaborative learning to support student interaction and engagement, as well as increasing the use of the outdoor environment to engage children in physical activity and build a sense of wellness. Nevertheless, efforts identified to understand student experiences by promoting and engaging with student voice were rare. Learners have a unique perspective on their needs and experiences and involving them in the strategic improvement of education ensures that learning continues to address their needs and aspirations, even as these evolve.

At school level at least, when comparing with documents produced in the initial stages of the crisis, the guidelines indicate a clear shift in emphasis from mitigating to addressing learning gaps, as countries moved out of the initial emergency phase. However, there is less clarity regarding concrete measures to support students in vocational and higher education. Furthermore, while there are some examples of comprehensive guidelines that aimed to synthesise well-being, assessment and remedial efforts into one coherent strategy with concrete tools for schools to use, the burden generally appeared to fall upon schools or individual teachers to develop the detail.

A key challenge facing policy makers is how to reconcile efforts to adapt pedagogical practices with measures to protect the well-being of educators. The pandemic has placed a heavy implementation burden on institutional actors. This in turn has required them to commit more of their time to professional learning in order to acquire new skills and new knowledge. Although this emphasis on institutional actors may allow strategies to be more tailored to local contexts, such an approach risks leaving them feeling overwhelmed and more likely to need to revert to the habits of the old normal. In recognising that new delivery modes place extra demands on institutional actors’ time and capacities, education systems must offer concrete measures to minimise undue burden and to ensure that such demands make full use of their professional expertise for student learning.

Although efforts to shift pedagogical practices at school level are evident across many education systems, it is less clear how governments were supporting VET providers and HEIs to implement changes that go beyond practical or logistical elements during the crisis period. Yet, the four areas of policy action identified here (personalised and flexible approaches to learning, developing partnerships, building capacity for change and ensuring all learners benefit) are as relevant to VET and higher education as they are to school education. Indeed, given the challenges facing young people entering the labour market over the coming years, and the disruption to the end-of-cycle assessment and certification processes caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as the subsequent need to re-scope these processes, students progressing to or already in higher education and VET may be among the most affected by this crisis.

At the Education Policy Reform Dialogues 2020, delegates raised and discussed related challenges. Reiterating the heavy and continuing impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on higher education, delegates’ discussions revealed the ongoing challenge to reconcile institutional autonomy and respect for academic freedom with the need for sectoral change. As such, it was noted that education systems need to establish a better understanding of the manifold components of higher education institution eco-systems in order to better provide support from public policy. Equally, delegates highlighted the fact that higher education institutions play an important wider societal function beyond students’ academic learning, calling for system-level actors to sufficiently recognise this in support efforts. Regarding the VET sector, delegates shared some solutions to key challenges, but it was noted that the many, more creative solutions being implemented at local and national level would require greater support and engagement from policy makers to gain traction. These include increasing flexibility through training breaks, modularisation, part-time learning, weekend online courses, fast-tracking licensing of providers and widening access to credentials through better recognition of prior learning. Digitised training and assessment could also be explored further.

This section has explored the ways in which policy makers are working to shift educational practices towards a new and better normal in which the people and processes of learning are valued over the places and devices associated with it. Taking into account the current modes of delivery, as well as system-level guidance in key policy areas and the Education Policy Outlook’s Framework for Responsiveness and Resilience, three policy pointers for future action emerge:

The COVID-19 crisis has reinforced the notion that learning is a relational process that can happen anywhere and at any time. Transforming education systems for the long term requires looking beyond a binary, reactive interpretation of this insight towards a model that harnesses learning in all its guises: formal and informal, curricular and extra-curricular, institution-based, home-based, community-based and work-based.

To ensure that such approaches work for all learners and help transform educational practices for the better, policy makers need to develop a deeper understanding of the educational benefits of different delivery approaches across every education level and sector. Furthermore, systems must ensure that such an approach to learning as processes helps address long-standing equity challenges as opposed to exacerbating them. This requires moving beyond the operational or organisational elements of delivery towards examining pedagogical elements that enrich learning processes and interactions between educators and learners. These elements then need to be used to inform decision making and guidance measures that support institutional actors in embracing diversity and implementing change. This is as important for driving improvement in higher and vocational education as it is in school education.

Transforming education requires shifting practices at every level of the system. This cannot happen without co-ordinated efforts to build capacity for change, supplying all actors in the system with the skills and knowledge required to implement something new. Although capacity-building efforts are in place in the second half of 2020, the focus remains largely limited to building digital skills among educators.

Building capacity for system transformation requires adopting a much broader view. Educators need support to effectively diagnose every learner’s learning needs, plan appropriate and differentiated remedial action, and monitor progress towards learning goals. Parents and students also need to be empowered to participate actively in this process. Lesson two further explores how policy makers can design and implement effective policy efforts to support professional learning for educators. Institutions, their leaders, and local education administrators will need to develop the necessary skills to collaborate with people they may not be used to working with, and to lead their staff in adapting practices to local contexts, finding innovative solutions to local problems. Finally, this all begins with policy makers, whose ability to collate and disseminate evidence and knowledge about policy processes is crucial in shifting mind-sets and transforming education into something new and better.

Students should be supported in developing the skills required for more autonomous learning – self-regulation and self-evaluation, as well as digital skills – but also the skills and knowledge required to support well-being. Furthermore, only education systems that truly listen to students’ needs, ambitions and lived experiences, and that act on that information, will be responsive enough to successfully engage all learners, even as individuals and societies change.

In the specific context of the second half of 2020, this starts with mitigating and recovering the learning gaps that may have appeared as a result of emergency distance education to ensure that all learners continue to progress through the system, recognising that protecting and strengthening student well-being is a crucial precursor. Viewing this crisis as a syndemic, education systems need to support learner recovery by identifying the full breadth of academic and socio-emotional needs of all learners and aligning them to more personalised learning opportunities. Many education systems considered in this report have implemented guidance and initiatives that show evidence of this; Lesson three further explores how policymakers can design and implement effective policy efforts in this area. Similarly, education systems need to increase the flexibility of their education pathways so that learners can better adapt theirs to respond to changes of context; this flexibility needs, however, to be provided through a shared vision at the system level of what it means to become a thriving learner.

Insights from other OECD work can also help inform policy makers’ responses in the current context:

  • The Future for Education and Skills 2030 project has been working to gain clarity on what students need to learn in order to become citizens of future thriving societies, and how this new curriculum should be implemented, including in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic (See Annex 4).

  • Similarly, the Implementing Education Policies project has developed a framework to help governments structure the implementation strategy of their evolving education responses to COVID-19 in schools (see Annex 5).

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