2. Strengthening resilience at learner level through empowered learners, adaptive pedagogies and sustained supports

Children and young people like Lucas and Sofia have always been among the most vulnerable in society. As explained in the Overview, events of global and local scale currently facing societies make it seem that today’s learners are experiencing more change than ever before, with many possible futures now unfolding. Some changes may be intentional, as part of efforts to improve the responsiveness of education systems towards their learners, while others may derive from external events, foreseeable or not.

In either case, these changes have potential consequences for learners that can be grouped into four main categories:

  • Disruption to relationships with themselves—e.g. shifts in physical and emotional well-being, including self-esteem, identity construction;

  • Disruption to relationships with others—e.g. change in social and interpersonal dynamics in family, peer, and learning or community networks;

  • Disruption to access to learning resources—e.g. change in learning delivery mode, change in availability and capability of technology, change in availability of professional support networks or financial resources;

  • Disruption to education and employment pathways—e.g. new barriers erected, new pathways developed, old pathways removed, change in associated costs and benefits of different pathways (see also Chapter 4).

Education systems can help nurture resilient learners that tackle these disruptions by being more responsive to their varied needs in different situations. Through analysis of international evidence, this framework identifies two core policy areas for responsiveness and resilience of education systems at learner level: 1) Empowering learners to confidently navigate their worlds, and; 2) Combining adaptive pedagogies for all with sustained supports for the most vulnerable. Policy efforts in these areas can provide the system with greater capacity to react to changes and disruptions while supporting learners to adjust positively to everyday challenges and external shocks.

Drawing from these two core areas, and from a perspective of short to medium-term in a context of change and disruption, this chapter therefore lays out practical approaches that policy makers can adopt to help promote learner resilience. That said, as education systems become able to better function again, governments need to seize the opportunity to reflect on lessons learned about strengthening resilience at learner level for the longer term. Building on this framework, reflections for the future are set out at the end of the chapter to support policy makers reflect on them.

To become resilient, learners first of all need to be able to build and maintain a positive relationship with themselves—this is an immediate priority. Their social and emotional well-being, and their capacity for agency and co-agency, determine how they experience education, but also family life, employment, or social relationships and responsibilities. At the same time, learners’ experiences of the different worlds in which they live and learn permeate the attitudes and mindsets they hold, as well as the skills and knowledge they master. To empower students to confidently navigate these different worlds, education policy makers need to ensure that they equip learners with complex skills and competencies to process personal experiences into success, a voice to help them communicate their needs and ambitions, and an environment that conveys a sense of safety while nurturing effective learning.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, students’ usual mode of learning changed, generally for an extended period of time. A number of education systems in the Special Survey carried out by the OECD/UNESCO-UIS/UNICEF/World Bank in 2021 indicated that schools were closed for at least five school weeks in 2020, with some closed for well over half the school year. On average, older students were shut out of schools for longer than younger students. During these periods of school closure, the vast majority of students in most education systems were following distance education (see Figure 2.1). Efforts then tended to focus on ensuring access and participation along with the provision of learning materials, mainly through online platforms, but also take-home packages, television, mobile phones, radio or other means.

However, while important, barriers to learning may have been much less tangible than a poor Internet connection or limited access to a device. Data collected prior to the COVID-19 pandemic indicate that many students across the OECD lacked the skills and mindset required to thrive during periods of more autonomous learning. In the OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) 2018, 71.4% of 15-year-olds agreed that their self-belief gets them through hard times and 62.6% exhibited a growth mindset, disagreeing that intelligence is fixed. Yet these averages masked important variations. In some countries and economies, little over half of students reported having the self-belief to carry them through hard times, while in others, more than 85% did. Among disadvantaged students specifically, 56.2% exhibited a growth mindset, compared to 68.4% of advantaged students.

Moreover, a lower share of teachers in the OECD’s Teaching and Learning International Survey (TALIS) 2018 had indicated a didactic style of teaching—more required during distance education. On average across the OECD, less than half (44.5%) of lower secondary teachers reported frequently asking students to decide on their own procedures for solving complex tasks, while less than one-third (28.6%) regularly gave students projects requiring at least one week to complete. Therefore, there is much to strengthen in terms of the support provided to learners by education systems in non-crisis contexts that can better prepare them for when disruption and change arise.

Governments and societies have grown increasingly aware of the importance of strengthening learners’ social and emotional skills as well as their transformative competencies and their well-being. In the same way, research indicates a growing number of mental health problems and psychiatric disorders in children and adolescents in the 21st century, likely resulting from the intensification of macro-level changes and idiosyncratic stresses (Choi, 2018[2]). The COVID-19 experience appears to have expanded the implications of this hypothesis. By working to foster learners’ agency and co-agency, education systems can begin to address such challenges simultaneously.

Social and emotional skills are increasingly important in the 21st century. As internal protective factors, motivation, self-regulation, autonomy and co-operativeness, self-efficacy or self-worth can strengthen children’s emotional well-being (OECD, 2015[3]) and are particularly crucial in times of stress (Jiao et al., 2020[4]; Reyes, 2013[5]). The early development of socio-emotional skills also has a strong medium- to long-term predictive power of positive outcomes for children later in their lives (OECD, 2020[6]). More recently, there has been an increasing focus on the role of social and emotional skills in influencing how well people adjust to their environment and how much they achieve in their lives in an increasingly fast-changing and diverse world (Chernyshenko, Kankaraš and Drasgow, 2018[7]). Carefully designed interventions can support young people’s development of these skills: recent research indicates that schools’ impact on social and emotional development have a larger positive effect on educational and behavioural outcomes than their impact on academic development (Jackson et al., 2020[8]).

As well as the social and emotional skills that support them to absorb and adjust to change, learners must develop the skills to play an active role in their communities, and respond to global challenges. In this way, transformative competencies, including critical thinking, growth mindset, creativity, open-mindedness and responsibility, help young people respond positively to uncertainty across a lifetime (Chernyshenko, Kankaraš and Drasgow, 2018[7]; OECD, 2019[9]; Felder et al., 2017[10]). For example, when faced with risk, people often make systematic judgement errors due to biases such as loss aversion and present bias with those in positions of socio-economic stress particularly susceptible (Biddle, 2021[11]). Therefore thinking critically, approaching decisions with an open mind and recognising one’s own biases, for example, are valuable skills for all learners, and particularly disadvantaged ones.

In 2020, the need to maintain learning during the COVID-19 pandemic further alerted societies to the value of equipping learners with a wider range of non-cognitive and compound skills. As many learners switched to online learning, regardless of having adequate equipment, digital connection, learning space or digital skills, the quality of students’ learning relied heavily on their metacognitive capacities. Metacognition (i.e. the awareness and understanding of one’s inner processes and subjective experiences) not only regulates actions but also helps strengthen motivation, effort and persistence, and alleviates obstacles (Chernyshenko, Kankaraš and Drasgow, 2018[7]). As institutions closed in 2020, and with varying guidance from teachers and parents, most students were more likely to have to navigate online pedagogical resources independently, work to longer deadlines in more project-based and self-directed learning, and to self-assess progress. As such, self-regulation, goal-setting and reflection were critical, as well as self-efficacy, critical thinking and integrity.

However, socio-emotional skills and transformative competencies must also be supported by student well-being and mental health, to which they also contribute. Emotional well-being during childhood and adolescence is crucial, as youths with a positive sense of it have higher odds of becoming happy, confident adults with healthy lifestyles, and who contribute positively themselves to collective well-being (Choi, 2018[2]). At the same time, research highlights the need to differentiate between student well-being, which relates to all learners, and the mental health issues experienced by some learners (Barkham et al., 2019[12]). Policy makers need to keep in mind that learners experiencing mental health issues require targeted interventions that go beyond the support provided to all learners. These include specialist support, but also raising specific awareness among education staff in order to better support learners.

Therefore, in contexts of change and disruption, learners experienced uncertainty needs to be met with support that helps learners make sense of this new environment, in order to adapt to present and future similar challenges. Resources aimed at strengthening learner resilience therefore require a strategic approach that builds learners’ capacity to cope with disruption, rather than merely (and possibly irrealistically) strive to guard the learner from the consequences of change.

See Table 2.1 for a list of policies considered in this analysis; [֎] see Chapter 5 for further information.

Results from the OECD Policy Questionnaire on Curriculum Redesign reveal that countries and economies are more likely to emphasise transformative competencies – such as critical thinking and problem solving – than social-emotional skills in their curricula. Countries and economies such as Portugal, Scotland (United Kingdom), and Canada have developed student profiles that set out the skills and attitudes learners should acquire throughout their education. While these largely address skills for learning, the workplace, and participation in society, they also include social and emotional skills. Student profiles can support effective curriculum implementation when they are effectively embedded into a curriculum and communicated to students, parents, and teachers (OECD, 2020[13]).

Moreover, analysis from the Education Policy Outlook suggests that policy efforts to reinforce social-emotional skills often feature more prominently in early childhood education and care (ECEC), where there has been a long-standing concern for the social and emotional development of young children. For example, social and emotional learning has been an important feature of Sweden’s֎ ECEC curriculum since its introduction in 1998, with more recent additions about physical and personal integrity. Iceland’s ECEC curriculum also addresses social and emotional aspects of learning.

Countries and economies are increasingly introducing social and emotional learning programmes or objectives for older students, covering aspects such as physical and emotional well-being, sustainable living, and active citizenship. In Norway, in 2020, health and life skills became one of three interdisciplinary topics of its core curriculum for primary and secondary education. This change aims to help students gain the competencies they need to make responsible life choices, to deal with success and failure, and to achieve physical and mental well-being. In the same way, revisions to Japan’s National Curriculum Standard for Upper Secondary Education, introduced in 2009, include objectives relating to self-discipline, empathy, and co-operation with others. The curriculum aims to nurture students’ ‘competencies for living’ by balancing three core elements: solid academic ability, richness in mind, and a healthy body. Mexico considers social-emotional learning through a dedicated curriculum in ECEC, primary and secondary education, as well as embedding it across traditional curricular subjects. This approach aligns with international evidence on good practices (OECD, 2019[14]).

For the curriculum to be able to live in the hearts and minds of learners, however, teachers need to own it. This may be especially true in the case of social-emotional learning programmes, which often require teachers to engage with unfamiliar and sensitive subject content. Analysis of curricular implementation in Mexico highlighted teachers’ need for time and agency to better understand which activities they could use to develop non-cognitive skills (OECD, 2019[14]). Similarly, the evaluation of Norway’s curriculum reform highlights the importance of teachers’ agency in implementing the guidance on interdisciplinary learning (Karseth, Kvamme and Ottesen, 2020[15]).

Australia’s Evidence for Learning (see Box 2.1) conducted a systemic review on the impact of student well-being interventions on academic and well-being outcomes, which highlights four factors for successful implementation (Ho and Dix, 2020[16]). These include implementing shorter programmes to allow schools to manage competing priorities, delivering programmes over a number of regular sessions to build student capacity incrementally, and taking a whole-school community approach to raise awareness among school leaders, teachers, students and their families. Programmes taught by classroom teachers trained by external experts were found to be marginally more effective than those delivered by the experts themselves. The authors also recommended combining a universal approach to fostering school belonging and social-emotional skills among all learners, with targeted interventions for the most vulnerable (Ho and Dix, 2020[16]; Dix et al., 2020[17]).

Student well-being became a stronger priority for several education systems during institutional closures in 2020, and was a continued focus when institutions began to reopen. When schools were closed, countries and economies such as Ireland, Latvia, Norway, and Turkey offered psychological or social support to learners through online platforms or telephone hotlines. Greece’s Centre for Educational Psychology published reports aimed at parents and teachers with guidance on supporting children and fostering emotional resilience during the pandemic. The Czech Republic, Portugal, and Turkey took similar approaches, collaborating with experts to produce well-being resources and guidance for students, teachers, and families. In Portugal, this included topics such as helping children cope with stress, supporting families to navigate isolation and self-care recommendations for educators (OECD, 2020[18]). Denmark and Ireland were among the countries and economies that offered counselling to students in tertiary education. Ireland also offered remote counselling to adult learners.

In the context of institutional closures in 2020, two main approaches stand out among the countries and economies whose guidelines for school re-opening dealt explicitly with student well-being: promoting the provision of specialist professional support for students and encouraging educators to plan teaching and learning with well-being in mind. For example, guidelines in Ireland advised schools to plan for more collaborative learning to support student interaction and engagement, and to make use of outdoor environments to engage young people in physical activity. Chile produced diagnostic assessments that included an assessment of students’ social and emotional skills. Furthermore, the French Community of Belgium, Japan and Portugal allocated additional resources for psychological and social support, based on an assessment of local needs (OECD, 2020[19]).

Evidence suggests that mental health should be measured differently from well-being, also at different education stages in order to facilitate transitions, and that it often requires different kinds of interventions (Barkham et al., 2019[12]). In Chile, the Abilities for Life Programme, which is part of the National Board of School Aid and Scholarships (JUNAEB) (see Chapter 3), offers psychosocial support to children at risk of poor mental health and learning outcomes. This support is allocated based on a screening process that takes place at key transition points. It relies on networks of support within the school and the wider community and includes interventions to support teachers and parents (Junta Nacional de Auxilio Escolar y Becas, n.d.[21]). An evaluation from 2015 found that students’ participation on the Abilities for Life workshops had a significant impact on outcomes such as end-of-year promotion and school attendance. The second phase of the programme has been designed to gather experimental data on its impact on students, as well as the impact of teacher and parent interventions (Guzmán et al., 2015[22]).

At higher education level, in the United Kingdom, Universities UK developed its Stepchange mental health framework, which draws on evidence from school and workplace initiatives. The initial framework was published in 2017 and piloted by a group of universities to identify gaps in provision (Universities UK, 2020[23]). On the basis of results from the pilot phase, and additional focus groups on leadership and staff mental health, Universities UK published a revised framework in 2020. Likewise, inspired by experiences from the United Kingdom or Canada, and based on consultations with students, universities and the mental health sector, Australia’s University Mental Health Framework (2020) provides an extensive list of areas of focus for data collection. These include collecting longitudinal data on student well-being and mental health, involving students in monitoring the implementation of the framework, and identifying data from different sources to provide a more comprehensive picture of student needs (Orygen, 2020[24]).

  • Empower learners now and in their futures by keeping their holistic development high on the policy agenda. Social and emotional skills, transformative competencies, well-being and mental health can all help learners become the motors of their own learning, both in their everyday processes and as they make decisions for their future. The COVID-19 pandemic appears to have increased awareness of the importance of empowering learners more holistically beyond cognitive aspects. Policy makers and education professionals should continue to prioritise this as they tackle lost learning during the recovery phase. At the same time, fewer policy efforts analysed for this report involve a long-term or more transversal commitment to embedding these skills in the curriculum and providing ongoing support. In many cases, the task of providing learners with this type of support falls to external collaborators rather than professionals based in educational institutions. Moving forward, teachers and school psychologists must therefore be supported to participate actively in the process, since they often have the most regular contact with learners. In the short term, teachers, in particular, may need support in managing new and often sensitive topics.

  • Support learners’ social and emotional skills, transformative competencies, well-being and mental health, while recognising them as distinct. Although these aspects are related, there is a need to develop distinct measures for the range of different issues that affect learners. Generating evidence on them, the practices that support them, and how they come together, will be critical as education systems and institutions seek to assess the impact of the pandemic on learners and implement strategies to mitigate it. There is also a need to collect these data for individual students over time, giving due attention to data protection issues (see Chapter 4).

Education policy needs to take into account the different environments in which students live and learn (e.g. school or university, home, or the community) to achieve a more comprehensive vision of students’ needs, interests and expectations. In the short term, student engagement and student voice will help provide a first-hand view of how these different environments intersect to shape learning experiences. Responsive and resilient education systems develop processes through which students can express their needs and ambitions in this way, and establish relevant practices through which other actors in the system respond appropriately.

Student voice activities strengthen learner resilience by supporting the development of cognitive and non-cognitive skills. The ability to voice one’s opinions confidently, and assertively stating one’s needs and feelings, are critical elements in healthy engagement with others (Chernyshenko, Kankaraš and Drasgow, 2018[7]). Furthermore, PISA data reveal a positive relationship between student voice and learning outcomes: students in schools that seek feedback from students performed better in reading than students in schools that do not, on average across OECD countries and economies and even after accounting for schools’ socio-economic background (OECD, 2020[39]). Moreover, learner engagement with the environments they inhabit enhances students’ ability and willingness to take action for collective well-being and sustainable development, and promotes the role of young people as active members of society (OECD, 2020[40]).

Behavioural economics research also indicates that policy is likely to be far more effective if it is based on how people actually make decisions, not the assumptions drawn from our models of human behaviour, where a person’s rationale and the information that is available may differ (Biddle, 2021[11]). To achieve this, education policy makers need first-hand insight into learners’ decision-making processes. Increasing student voice and engagement can therefore help plan, develop and evaluate policies that better strengthen learner resilience, as learners have a unique perspective on their needs and experiences (OECD, 2018[37]; OECD, 2020[13]). In this process, listening to the voice of the most vulnerable learners is particularly important, since they are likely to have more complex needs during a crisis (Winthrop, n.d.[41]). Furthermore, involving learners in the strategic improvement of the learning environment, and the education system as a whole, helps ensure that learning and well-being are at the centre of policy development (OECD, 2018[37]; Cook-Sather, 2020[42]).

The ongoing erosion of young people’s trust in public institutions in many of today’s societies also creates an imperative to engage with and listen to students. In just over a decade, today’s youth (15-29 year-olds) have been hit by two major global crises while also experiencing rapid social and economic transformations. These have had a strong impact on their trust in public institutions and their own sense of influence and representation. In more than half of OECD countries and economies, youth’s trust in government, compared to the total population, has decreased since 2006. Ongoing COVID-induced economic and social uncertainty may further erode this.

At the same time, young people appear increasingly attracted to non-institutionalised political engagement, such as social movements and digital activism through social media, blogs and online petitions (OECD, 2020[43]; OECD, 2018[44]). This crisis in trust and the withdrawal from traditional participatory channels signals young people’s frustration with the political system, potentially affecting the legitimacy of liberal democratic institutions and driving populist movements (OECD, 2018[44]). Strengthening ties between young people and public governance is therefore crucial for the future effectiveness, resilience and legitimacy of public institutions.

See Table 2.2 for a list of policies considered in this analysis; [֎] see Chapter 5 for further information.

While previous analyses from the Education Policy Outlook suggest that engaging different stakeholders in decision making was a priority across many education systems, fewer examples of recent education reforms for formal student voice mechanisms have been collected (OECD, 2019[35]). This may suggest that many education systems already had these mechanisms in place at the time of our analysis, but further OECD comparative evidence points to the need to ensure that these have an impact on the student experience (OECD, 2020[43]). In PISA 2018, some 68% of students across OECD countries and economies on average were in schools that reported collecting written feedback from students about their lessons, teachers, or resources. However, on average, 56% of students were in schools that would do this on their own initiative, and only 12% were in schools where this was mandatory (OECD, 2020[39]).

Youth engagement requires government investment in adequate financial and human resources, open information, good co-ordination and appropriate incentives for public officials to implement the feedback they receive. Additional measures may be needed to facilitate the participation of under-represented or hard-to-reach groups in learner voice activities (e.g. reimbursing expenses, providing childcare and holding consultations in different geographical areas), although digital tools may help reduce some of these transaction costs (OECD, 2020[43]). Governments may wish to develop strategies for youth engagement prioritising different levels of the system, depending on the specific policy agendas that are under development. Efforts can be undertaken to increase student voice across the system, but more institutional-level initiatives may support meaningful improvement too.

Canada’s Youth Policy is an example of a youth engagement mechanism developed through youth engagement itself. Canada developed it with an initial national conversation in which over 5 000 young Canadians identified the six youth priority areas that form the basis of the policy. The policy therefore now requires the Government to regularly consult with young people on developments in these areas (Government of Canada, 2020[45]). Between 2020 and 2021, consultations with nearly 1 000 youth in these areas led to the publication of the first State of Youth Report. The State of Youth Report identifies specific actions to be taken in response to the report’s recommendations, with some actions already in place (Government of Canada, 2021[46]). Iceland has also implemented several initiatives to reflect the voices of young people in different policy processes. Youth Work Iceland (Samfés) – one of Iceland’s leading youth organisations – plays a key role in these efforts. Samfés has one youth council for 13-16 year-olds, with 27 members elected annually from across the country, and a further council for 16-25 year-olds. The councils work towards ensuring active participation of children and young people in decision making in all matters concerning them, to protect their interests and rights, and to create a basis for young people to come together in an annual National Youth Congress. The councils play a key role in Samfés’ activities: two representatives attend board meetings with equal voting rights (Samfés Youth Council, n.d.[47]; Samfés Youth Council, n.d.[48]).

At the system level, large-scale surveys allow systems to capture the views of a broader student population. Estonia֎ and Denmark (see Table 2.2) have introduced policies of this type in recent years. In Estonia, data from student satisfaction surveys are used both for school improvement and for system-level evaluation. This approach aims to give students a sense of agency and empowerment, and ensure that teachers and other decision makers are better informed (Cook-Sather, 2020[42]).

As part of efforts to integrate student feedback across the system and within institutions, Costa Rica֎ also introduced reforms to make its student government programme more inclusive and more representative in 2009, following recommendations from a nationwide consultation exercise. A dedicated Department of Student Participation is responsible for ensuring that students develop the skills they need to contribute to school improvement and collects data on aspects relating to inclusion. In 2019, Costa Rica held its first national student dialogues, during which student representatives from across the country met with representatives from the Ministry of Public Education to discuss issues such as student well-being, national testing, and dual education.

Students have also been providing feedback to help reforms succeed. Countries and economies such as Finland, Korea and Portugal have gathered feedback from students ahead of recent curriculum reforms (OECD, 2020[13]). In Portugal, students have played a key role in the development of the Student Profile of the End of Compulsory Schooling, as part of Portugal’s participation in the OECD Future of Education 2030 project and a national Student Voice initiative. In 2016, for example, students took part in a national conference in which they voiced their perspectives on schooling and developed a proposal for improvement. This approach has since been replicated across the country through a national network involving students, the Ministry of Education, and other stakeholders (Directorate-General of Education of Portugal, 2016[49]). Gathering student feedback when designing curriculum reforms can help to ensure lessons, content, and activities fit their needs and interests. As such, the personalisation of learning becomes less at the discretion of individual teachers (OECD, 2020[13]).

In Portugal, since 2017, students in public secondary schools can formulate and vote on proposals for the use of specific funding received for school improvement initiatives. This process aims to give students both autonomy and financial resources to initiate change, and promote entrepreneurialism and democratic participation. Examples of proposals include the purchase of new sports equipment or the replacement of existing lightbulbs in classrooms with LEDs to improve energy efficiency.

Mechanisms for student representation are often particularly well-developed in higher education, where learners are more mature, and where student unions and other representative bodies play a key role in institutional and system-level decision making in many countries and economies. At this education level, countries and economies such as Chile, Denmark, Iceland and Slovenia have introduced measures to reflect students’ views in quality assurance procedures. Denmark implemented a student questionnaire as part of its 2017 higher education funding reform, thus integrating students’ perceptions of the learning environment and their learning experiences into the funding mechanism. In Iceland, students are represented at all levels of Iceland’s quality assurance system. In Slovenia, the student union appoints two members of the Council of Slovenia’s National Agency for Quality Assurance in Higher Education (NAKVIS, n.d.[50]). Similarly, in Chile, higher education students must be represented by law in the National Accreditation Commission (CNA) and student voice is part of the evaluation process of higher education institutions and programmes (Ministry of Education of Chile, 2006[51]).

In the early stages of the pandemic, concerns were raised about a lack of student representation in the planning for emergency education, both at the institutional and national level (OECD, 2020[13]). However, some countries and economies found ways of capturing student experiences during institutional closures and used student feedback to plan for the re-opening of institutions and further emergency measures. Norway’s Prime Minister held two press conferences for children during school closures, while Finland’s Prime Minister took part in a virtual question and answer session for young people. Latvia’s Ministry of Education and Science conducted regular surveys with stakeholders, including students, to gather feedback on distance learning and other emergency measures. Among non-European countries and economies, during the second edition of Costa Rica’s national student dialogues, the Minister of Education presented the country’s school re-opening strategy to student representatives from across the country and gathered their feedback.

For older students, Norway’s Minister of Research and Higher Education continued to hold weekly meetings with student organisations throughout 2020/21. Student associations in Finland also conducted a survey on the impact of lockdowns on students in vocational education and training (VET). Student organisations were also represented in the feedback exercise carried out by Ireland’s National Forum for the Enhancement of Teaching and Learning in Higher Education. This fed into a report that summarised key lessons and identified key practices to maintain in 2020/21.

  • Make student voice more systematic, regular and impactful. Moving forward beyond the pandemic, governments need to make the transition to seeing students as actors of different worlds (e.g. home, education institution, community) that constantly intersect in different ways, rather than only receivers of instruction. Seeking information on their experiences, which can be highly diverse, can help create policies that respond more realistically to students’ needs. Student engagement and student voice mechanisms are likely to be more effective where they are systematic, regular, and where student views translate into concrete action (Cook-Sather, 2020[42]). They also vary according to the needs and capacities of learners at different levels of the system. Furthermore, sharing with students how their views are being taken into account increases their trust in, and commitment to, student voice mechanisms.

  • Listen to student voice throughout the different stages of policy processes. There is value in integrating student voice throughout the different stages of a policy process (e.g. from implementation, ongoing monitoring and evaluation processes). However, previous analysis from the Education Policy Outlook has found that policy evaluations in particular tend to focus on practitioners, paying less attention to students and parents. Developing awareness of the need to cover the full range of possible perspectives is an important step in putting students and their learning at the centre of policy development (OECD, 2018[37]). In the early stage of the pandemic, several countries and economies made use of digital platforms to gather feedback from students and other stakeholders. Such efforts can strengthen policy processes by providing rapid feedback loops to both schools and governments (OECD, 2020[19]). Governments should now work to develop and systematise these mechanisms to make policy reform more student-centred, while finding ways of including students at risk of digital exclusion.

By shifting mindsets to value people and processes over classrooms and devices, resilient education systems must now focus on nurturing positive climates around learners across the full spectrum of spaces in which they learn. This includes physical spaces, such as traditional education institutions, the home, the work environment and dedicated community spaces, but also non-physical spaces, such as the digital sphere and the interpersonal sphere.

At the same time, an education institution is not just a place; it is a community of people and processes. Indeed, many of the key components of school belonging and positive institutional climates – a stable body of teachers, strategic leadership, positive disciplinary approaches, teacher and parent support, extra-curricular engagement, positive relationships with peers (Agasisti et al., 2018[60]; OECD, 2019[61]) – relate much more to the people that inhabit the institution and interactions that take place than to the physical infrastructure and resources. This is a key insight for resilient education systems operating in a world where disruption to institution-based learning may be increasingly common (see Overview).

Widespread closures in 2020 during the COVID-19 pandemic emphasised that educational settings provide manifold services not easily replicated through digital or other remote solutions. Moreover, distance-learning solutions have traditionally been associated with attendance challenges and higher absenteeism (OECD, 2020[62]). Finding ways of replicating the aspects of institutional climates that strengthen student engagement and connectedness in the digital sphere can help enhance the quality of learning that takes place there. For example, it is important to ensure that, even in remote learning environments, students continue to interact with their teachers, and that those teachers have the skills to manage behaviour positively in a digital space and engage with parents outside normal school channels.

In fact, while institutional closures make physical interaction difficult, digital platforms, if used correctly, can give learners the opportunity to interact and collaborate. Such approaches to distance learning can also improve academic outcomes (Education Endowment Foundation, 2020[63]). Nevertheless, while digital technologies could facilitate student communication, they also expose them to new risks such as excessive screen-time, cyberbullying or sexual exploitation (OECD, 2020[64]). Teachers, parents and carers must therefore support young people in becoming responsible digital citizens, developing their awareness of the opportunities and risks offered by digital technologies (Burns and Gottschalk, 2019[65]; OECD, 2020[64])

These efforts are particularly relevant given that research associates a high sense of belonging at school with an array of academic and social and emotional outcomes linked to greater resilience. A greater sense of belonging in students is significantly and substantially associated with a perceived value in schooling and the expectation of having a high-status occupation more resilient to labour market transformations (Biddle, 2021[11]).

Additionally, student belonging has been associated with higher academic motivation, self-esteem and achievement, in certain circumstances, as well as a lower chance of engaging in risky and antisocial behaviours, skipping or dropping out of school, and being unsatisfied with life (OECD, 2019[61]). Although, in general, disadvantaged students tend to express a lower sense of belonging at school than their advantaged peers, evidence indicates that the academic resilience of socio-economically disadvantaged students is associated with positive institutional climates (Agasisti et al., 2018[60]).

See Table 2.3 for a list of policies considered in this analysis; [֎] see Chapter 5 for further information.

Governments in several OECD countries and economies had implemented measures to improve the learning climate and students’ sense of belonging in the years before the pandemic. Moving forward beyond the pandemic, such measures will be all the more vital as education systems seek to mitigate the effect of lockdowns on learners of all ages.

Some education systems have started collecting information on students’ perceptions of the school climate, including information on harmful activities such as bullying. Denmark’s national well-being survey for students in primary and lower secondary schools from Grades 4-9 (see Table 2.2) contains items relating to these themes. These items aim to measure students’ levels of well-being at school, experiences of bullying, the disciplinary climate of classrooms and other related topics. Municipalities, schools, and teachers use the results to improve the learning environment. Denmark has undertaken a validation study of the survey and convened an advisory group of international experts to make recommendations for improvement (OECD, 2020[13]). Ireland’s Survey on Life Skills in Primary and Post-Primary Schools also gathers information on school policies and practices relating to nutrition, exercise, health, bullying or other aspects of the social, personal and health education programme (OECD, 2019[35]).

Policy efforts to address bullying specifically also remain important. Learners need to grow in respectful environments where they can thrive, in the same ways as they need to interiorise processes that will help them better function as part of future societies throughout their adult lives.

In recent years, France has taken a number of measures to monitor and improve the school climate, and specifically to target bullying, violence and cyberbullying. Awareness campaigns on issues such as bullying and cyber-harassment have complemented measures to monitor student perceptions of the school climate. Furthermore, Portugal’s School without Bullying, School without Violence plan (2019) emphasises a whole-of-community approach to combatting bullying, cyberbullying, and school violence, with actions aimed at teachers, parents, students, and other stakeholders. Based on a needs diagnosis, schools define an action plan involving strategies and activities that raise awareness around harmful behaviours and promote early identification. Schools can apply to have their practices in this area certified by submitting a report of their annual activities to the Ministry of Education; this allows the Ministry to monitor and disseminate best practices. The plan was launched during 2019/20, with 52 schools certified in 2020 (Directorate-General of Education of Portugal, n.d.[66]) .

Other examples of relevant policy efforts include the Internal Commissions for the Prevention of Accidents and School Violence (2012) in Rio Grande do Sul (Brazil)֎ and the Digital Citizenship Education in Saskatchewan Schools (2015) in Saskatchewan (Canada). Finland’s Education Evaluation Centre (FINEEC) is evaluating methods used to prevent bullying in early childhood and basic education, in order to highlight best practices within the system (Finnish Evaluation Centre of Education, n.d.[67]), with the results planned for publication in 2022 (Finnish Evaluation Centre of Education, 2018[68]).

A review of the evidence on promoting safe online behaviour among children carried out by the United Kingdom’s Council for Child Internet Safety emphasises the importance of developing young people’s online resilience by giving them the tools they need to stay safe online rather than seeking to eliminate all risks. This involves developing children’s ability to recognise online risks and giving them the technical and emotional competencies to deal with them. Policy makers and schools can embed these skills in the curriculum and other school activities, as well as providing education and support to parents, who often prefer to receive information on online safety from schools rather than from other sources. Guidance from schools is particularly important for students whose parents lack confidence or expertise in digital media. Evidence from the United Kingdom suggests that awareness campaigns such as the worldwide Safer Internet Day have brought about changes in young people’s attitudes and practices (Livingstone et al., 2017[69]).

Likewise, promoting engagement between students in the context of distance learning has become a policy priority for many countries and economies since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic. Turkey֎ developed an online learning programme (see Table 3.5 in Chapter 3) to strengthen teachers’ capacity to promote three kinds of interaction in distance education: student-student interaction, student-teacher interaction, and student-material interaction (Ministry of National Education of Turkey, 2020[70]). In a similar vein, Slovenia’s֎ National Education Institute has organised online training on themes such as collaboration via distance learning and developing quality student-teacher relations (Institute of the Republic of Slovenia for Education, 2020[71]). These aim to help ensure that schools and other places of learning maintain a sense of community in the event of further disruptions to learning.

  • Prioritise pro-active, holistic and tangible approaches that promote positive interactions between learners. Learners need to develop and maintain positive interactions with each other, regardless of where learning takes place. Supporting these interactions becomes particularly challenging in the context of distance learning. Whether they are working in a physical, digital or hybrid environment, educators and learners need guidance on the expectations and tools that promote positive interactions and prevent harmful activities (e.g. bullying, cyberbullying, negative peer pressure or truancy). Autonomy matters. Younger learners in particular will need to develop, for example, the technical and emotional skills that will help them stay safe online and respond appropriately to online risks. These actions help nurture shared understandings of the pro-active positive behaviours to be encouraged, instead of only taking action when negative behaviours occur.

    • Monitor the impact of measures to improve the learning climate. Measuring the impact of initiatives to improve learning environments remains a challenge for policy makers around the world. Research on anti-bullying interventions highlights some of the challenges in defining and measuring bullying, and therefore in comparing findings from different studies (Volk, Veenstra and Espelage, 2017[73]). The OECD has found that although several countries and economies have identified bullying and cyberbullying as policy priorities, few collect data on the effectiveness of specific measures (Burns and Gottschalk, 2019[65]). Similarly, few of the numerous online safety initiatives implemented by different stakeholders have been independently evaluated, pointing to a need for more evidence in this area (Livingstone et al., 2017[69]). Well-designed student surveys can provide teachers and schools with vital information on how students experience the learning environment. However, this is only a first step. Teaching professionals also need knowledge and skills to make the necessary improvements to learning environments based on evidence.

Efforts to address learning gaps and support vulnerable students were extensive during 2020, and education systems targeted support at a wide range of student groups, with different emphases depending on the education level. Survey data from 2021 offer further insight (see Figure 2.2).

For instance, while supporting immigrant, refugee, ethnic minority or Indigenous students was a focus on pre-primary level, it was less often the aim among older students. Conversely, efforts to support students transitioning to another stage or at risk of drop-out were particularly prevalent in upper secondary and tertiary education (OECD/UIS/UNESCO/UNICEF/WB, 2021[1]).

By the end of 2020, an analysis conducted across 43 education systems shows that measures were being introduced to encourage curricular prioritisation and flexibility and individualised learning plans. However, there was less evidence regarding how teachers were being supported or held accountable to implement such efforts. Furthermore, while targeted efforts emphasised diagnosing learning needs, promoting formative assessment and, in some cases, student well-being, coherent strategies bringing these efforts together were less clear, as were targeted measures in vocational and tertiary education (OECD, 2020[19]).

Responsive and resilient education systems have sufficient flexibility to respond to changes of context, but also to changes in needs from one learner to another, within a shared vision of the education system’s aims (OECD, 2020[19]). Resilience also lies in education systems’ capacity to care for their most vulnerable members, targeting resources at learners who need them most (Ungar, 2011[76]), and empowering them to become the main drivers of their own learning. As shown by the COVID-19 pandemic, when education systems are not resilient in these ways, disruptions disproportionately affect the most vulnerable, with potentially dramatic and long-lasting implications for individuals and societies (OECD, 2020[19]).

Education system’s capacity to deliver more personalised and flexible learning for all learners become particularly important in contexts of change and disruption, where learner needs may greatly diverge given their changing environments. Moving towards the medium-term, this capacity will support education systems to better bridge learning gaps and empower learners according to their different potentials, aims and passions.

Broadly speaking, personalised learning involves adapting the educational experience to the interests, abilities, aspirations, and social, cultural and linguistic backgrounds of each learner. On the one hand, this involves empowering teachers and education institutions to adapt the pace and content of learning based on their knowledge of their students. On the other hand, personalised learning involves giving learners choice and flexibility over when, where, what and how they learn (OECD, 2006[77]; Istance and Dumont, 2010[78]; Huang et al., 2020[79]). However, providing more personalised experiences for learners should not mean that teachers or education systems need to design individual pathways or lessons for each student. Practices in this area range from differentiated instruction within a common curriculum to those that give learners greater control over curriculum content.

In terms of learner resilience, personalised approaches help strengthen student engagement in learning. PISA data indicate that adaptive instruction (i.e. teachers adapting to students’ needs or providing individual support) is positively related to students’ enjoyment of reading (OECD, 2019[61]). Furthermore, giving learners greater control over their learning, within a shared vision, leaves them better placed to cope with disruptions to the normal routines of education. This type of student agency also has a positive relationship with learning: when students play an active role in deciding what and how they will learn, they tend to show greater motivation and are more likely to define objectives for their learning. This can help them overcome adversity (Talreja, 2017[80]). Personalisation can also support students’ eudaimonic well-being, their sense of striving towards something with greater personal meaning. By moving away from the standardised and hierarchised approaches of the 20th century, personalised approaches are better placed to support students in pursuit of this type of self-actualisation.

At the institutional levele, personalisation and flexibility may help education systems tackle a key challenge present before the COVID-19 pandemic but made all the more urgent because of it: educational equity. Education systems around the world face the challenge of providing an equitable educational experience for all learners while also catering to the specific needs of each of them. Personalised learning promises to help resolve this tension by overcoming the inadequacies of one-size-fits-all approaches and supporting staff to take contextual conditions into account (OECD, 2006[77]; OECD, 2013[81]).

Crucially, by framing learners outside the generalisations of group identities, personalisation can support educators to overcome potential implicit prejudices, even when explicit prejudices have been dismantled (Biddle, 2021[11]). The assumptions educators make about learners and the resulting expectations they have of them are powerful moderators of learner and teacher success. Research suggests that low expectations are often held at group or class level, implying that understanding and articulating progress at individual level can help overcome bias (Hattie, 2009[82]). Low expectations can also be a self-limiting factor if learners identify with certain social groups subject to stereotyping (Biddle, 2021[11]).

More personalised and flexible approaches may also help foster innovation, itself a feature of resilient systems. Personalised learning – combined with high expectations for all learners – has been a recurring component of OECD research on educational innovation over the last 15 years. It has been a key concept in work on innovative learning environments, innovative pedagogies and, more recently, digital innovation. Indeed, digital technologies open up a range of possibilities for flexible and personalised learning. As well as potentially allowing learners to learn anywhere, and to choose between different activities, intelligent online tools can adapt content, pace, and assessment methods to the specific profile of the learner (OECD, 2020[83]; Gordon, 2014[84]; Huang et al., 2020[79]). Personalisation and flexibility as conceptualised here enable the teacher and student to build a stronger relationship, with a deeper understanding of individual complexities. Technology acts as an enabler of this, not a replacement.

See Table 2.4 for a list of policies considered in this analysis; [֎] see Chapter 5 for further information.

Most of the pre-crisis policy examples collected by the Education Policy Outlook for this report involve providing learners with flexible learning opportunities or giving them greater control over the pace of learning. These types of efforts seem to be more common in higher education in recent years, where governments have sought to broaden access to online courses. Ireland’s innovation and transformation fund rewards higher education institutions that develop flexible learning opportunities and attract new students. France’s֎ FUN-MOOC platform brings together some 547 massive open online courses (MOOCs) designed by higher education professionals and institutions. The platform has recorded over 6 million registrations since its launch in 2015. However, data collected by the European Commission indicate that most users were university graduates. In the context of a global recession, it will be important to target flexible learning opportunities at low-skilled workers who will be particularly vulnerable to changes in the labour market (European Commission, 2015[85]).

Developing differentiated pedagogy and individualised support has also been an important dimension of France’s lower-secondary school reforms (2016), although previous experiences in this area highlight some of the challenges education systems face in implementing personalised learning. The reforms allow schools to allocate up to three hours per week to different forms of personalised support. This support can be offered to all students regardless of their previous performance. Government guidance places a particular emphasis on developing students’ autonomous learning and metacognitive skills (Eduscol, 2020[86]). According to France’s National Centre for the Evaluation of the School System (CNESCO), the measures in place to support teachers in implementing differentiated pedagogy will be key to the reform’s success (Cnesco, n.d.[87]). A report from 2016 found that previous attempts to promote personalised learning and support in France have had little impact on teachers’ pedagogical practices (Toullec-Théry, 2016[88]). The 2016 reforms are more promising in this regard, although the CNESCO highlights the importance of evaluating the impact of these measures carefully (Cnesco, n.d.[87]; Toullec-Théry, 2016[88]).

Indeed, many of the initiatives analysed have focused on structural changes (e.g. in terms of courses offered or platforms used), but changes in pedagogy appear less obvious. Previous research from the Education Policy Outlook in the period following institutional closures in 2020 revealed that more personalised flexible approaches to learning was a key area in which education systems were aiming to shift practices to adjust to the new normal. For example, by September 2020, most education systems analysed were promoting multiple delivery methods, predominantly in-person or online. To encourage greater flexibility, others started adjusting regulatory structures such as curriculum hours or academic calendars, or adapting curriculum planning at system, institution or teacher level. The Slovak Republic֎ began piloting a new curriculum framework that gives primary schools greater control over the time allocation for individual subjects and allows them to address curriculum objectives over multi-year cycles, rather than grade levels. This allowed schools to adapt the pace of learning to tackle learning gaps, but also addressed a long-term goal to reduce curriculum overload.

Analysis from the Education Policy Outlook also reveals that the COVID-19 crisis led many education systems to invest in digital platforms that aim to offer more personalised learning opportunities. Education systems such as Estonia, Korea, Latvia, Slovenia and Turkey were able to make use of digital platforms that had been launched in the years before the crisis. Turkey’s Education Information Network (EBA), launched in 2012, played a central role in ensuring continuity during institutional closures in 2020. The platform uses artificial intelligence to personalise digital content, among other features. Experience in this context shows that aspects such as the quality of the educational content on the platform and the quality and availability of professional development should remain a priority when implementing these measures (OECD, 2020[34]). Korea is also developing an integrated online learning platform that brings together digital learning resources for students and teachers with information management systems for schools. It uses big data and artificial intelligence to support students’ self-directed learning. The platform is due to be completed in 2022 (National information provided to the OECD).

Adapting curriculum and pedagogy to individual learners’ needs has become a more urgent priority as education systems seek to recover the learning lost during school closures. In the context of the pandemic, 76% have reported implementing remedial measures to reduce learning gaps, in a report published in September 2021 (OECD, 2021[89]). For example, Slovenia’s We Explain platform, established during school closures in 2020, enables students to ask questions relating to aspects of the curriculum and get replies from a volunteer, teacher, or fellow student. Learners can also access additional information and online resources to reinforce learning (Mathematics Club, n.d.[90]).

Alongside additional remedial efforts, differentiated instruction will also be important for education systems to recover learning gaps. It is an important aspect of teachers’ professional frameworks in several OECD countries and economies, suggesting this was already a key priority in the pre-pandemic context (Guerriero, 2017[92]).

  • Develop inclusive approaches to learning that build on adaptive pedagogies to cater for individual learners’ needs. Overcoming the challenge of providing equitable opportunities for all while meeting the needs of individuals involves striking the balance between student-led and teacher-led approaches, individual and collective, or personalised and comprehensive. Relevant measures can be considered along a spectrum of flexibility, with learners often being given greater autonomy in the later education stages. Digital platforms have more clearly emerged as vehicles through which learners can gain greater control over the content and pace of learning and many countries and economies have taken steps in this direction. Regardless of the device used, however, it is important to keep in mind the role of adults (including teachers and parents) in these processes, particularly for education systems where digital platforms, their content and their use are less mature.

    • Support teachers’ greater freedom of practice beyond structural change. Providing learners with more choice does not diminish the role of teachers as engineers of student learning, identifying, adapting and applying solutions in response to students’ needs. During the pandemic, many governments have sought to give teachers greater flexibility in their practice. However, there is less evidence of measures that promote more personalised pedagogical practices, or for their application in different modes (including digital environments). Capacity building focused on aspects such as the development, implementation and monitoring of personalised learning plans, collaborative teaching and learning, and the development of students’ capacities for agency and autonomy will be key in this regard. This should combine with broader efforts to strengthen differentiated instruction among teachers, which has been a long-standing priority for education systems (Guerriero, 2017[92]).

While personalised learning can go a long a way to meeting individual learners’ needs, some will require additional support to achieve their full potential. This is particularly true in a context of rapid change. Learners with specific educational needs, and those facing economic or social disadvantage, will be more vulnerable to external stressors (Ungar, 2011[76]; OECD, 2018[99]). Furthermore, as systems evolve and adapt, non-linear processes of change can result in inconsistencies and inequalities in delivery. Consequently, resilience practices that fail to address equity through redistributive measures that target support and allocate resources – material, professional and financial – flexibly and according to need risk exacerbating vulnerabilities and power imbalances (Matin, Forrester and Ensor, 2018[100]).

At the learner level, equitable approaches help foster resilience by ensuring that students from different backgrounds are equally likely to earn the core skills and post-secondary education credentials that facilitate labour-market success and help individuals to realise their goals (OECD, 2018[99]). Too often, individual circumstances, over which students have no control, affect the quality of the schooling provided, the educational path students choose, and even the shape of students’ dreams (OECD, 2019[101]) all of which may negatively impact resilience (OECD, 2018[102]).

Getting this right not only helps to ensure the system is socially just, but can also contribute to a more efficient use of public resources. By 2010, austerity measures following the financial crisis of 2008 had imposed cuts on educational expenditure in around one-third of OECD countries and economies (OECD, 2013[103]). One increasingly common response was to implement targeted programmes providing funding to institutions or individuals for specific purposes. From 2008-15, while 47% of all policies collected by the Education Policy Outlook adopted a targeted approach, as opposed to comprehensive or content-based, 81% of those specifically related to funding were targeted (OECD, 2015[104]). Yet there are some emerging challenges associated with these approaches: by 2017, some OECD countries and economies experienced overlaps, excessive bureaucracy and long-term sustainability challenges as targeted programmes multiplied over time (OECD, 2017[105]).

As in other policy areas, the COVID-19 experience brings new urgency to these already important challenges of equity and efficiency. The results of the Special Survey suggest that around two-thirds of participating countries and economies reported increasing their education budgets for primary to tertiary education during 2020. For 2021, this share rose to around three-quarters of countries and economies (OECD, 2021[89]). However, even though economic growth is expected to return in 2021-22, education spending, particularly in high-income countries and economies, is also expected to decline in real terms along with overall government spending (World Bank, 2020[106]).

Experiences from the financial crisis of 2008 – where short-term increases in education spending were followed by a period of austerity – point to a need to ensure the sustainability of measures to support those most affected by the pandemic (OECD, 2021[89]). In addition to this, unemployment and decline in household income will reduce the capacity of many families, particularly disadvantaged ones, to invest in education, or may change the way they value education (Biddle, 2021[11]); this may impact participation in ECEC and tertiary education. The decline in international student mobility adds further pressure at tertiary level for many countries and economies (Estermann et al., 2020[107]). Furthermore, as the first analyses of learning loss are reported, national and international estimates point to an exacerbation of pre-existing learning gaps and inequalities (OECD, 2020[19]).

Evidence-informed continuity and comprehensiveness of policy efforts matter. When it comes to nurturing resilient learners, ensuring that sustained targeted supports are available to the most vulnerable learners is crucial for resilience. In particular, these supports need to be multi-layered, since the challenges facing disadvantaged learners are complex. At the same time, there are no quick fixes to the equity challenge: these supports must be sustained throughout a learners’ educational journey and across changing government administrations.

See Table 2.5 for a list of policies considered in this analysis; [֎] see Chapter 5 for further information.

Particularly in contexts of disruption and change, successful targeted interventions often require a degree of flexibility in design and implementation, allowing actors at the local or school level to develop bottom-up solutions based on a local diagnosis of learners’ needs. Similarly, assessment components often play an important role in diagnosing learning needs and monitoring the impact of interventions on student progress. The information gathered through these mechanisms means that strategies can evolve with the needs of individual students and contexts, and that policy makers can make adjustments to system-level approaches over time. Finally, many of these initiatives focus on strengthening relationships with parents and other stakeholders, seeking to enhance and connect the multiple environments in which students learn (OECD, 2020[19]).

This framework identifies some relevant pre-crisis approaches implemented by participating education systems that could be of value in the emerging international context aiming to move towards social and economic recovery. These approaches tackle early intervention, additional or specialised instruction for students with specific needs, promoting inclusive education and allocating additional resources based on students’ needs.

Early intervention strategies aim at identifying students at risk of poor learning outcomes as early as possible and taking preventative action. They require both clarity and flexibility to identify, prioritise and act on possible cases, which can be achieved through different means. For example, a key strength identified for Portugal’s comprehensive strategy to prevent grade repetition and school failure is the focus on local-level decision making. Schools develop improvement plans based on their learners’ needs, working with key partners such as parents and local authorities. Evaluations have shown that these partnerships can promote innovation and efficiency (OECD, 2020[18]; Guerriero, 2017[92]). The plan also aims to examine students’ competencies more broadly, making use of new assessment and monitoring instruments.

This is a broad area of action that could involve, for example, additional, specialised or even separate provision for Special Education Needs (SEN) students, or students who do not speak the language of instruction at home. Latvia has taken several measures to develop the capacity of mainstream schools to meet the needs of students with SEN, including converting its best-performing SEN schools into centres of excellence for inclusive education. As well as providing support to SEN students, these centres provide practical support and professional development for mainstream schools. Latvia has also developed new assessment tools to provide a more objective assessment of learners’ diverse needs (OECD, 2018[37]).

In the same way, the Flemish Community of Belgium has adjusted its approach to meeting the needs of SEN students in light of emerging evidence. The Guidance Decree (2019) aims to strengthen the capacity of mainstream schools and teachers to meet the needs of SEN students, while accepting special education for some learners (‘special education if needed, inclusive education if possible’). It builds on results from an evaluation of a support model implemented in 2017, in which mainstream schools collaborated with special schools, student guidance centres, and parents to provide tailored support for SEN students and their teachers. It also includes measures to support teachers in identifying gifted students and adapting their teaching to their needs (European Agency for Special Needs and Inclusive Education, 2021[108]).

In the interest of promoting inclusive education, many countries and economies are moving away from separate provision and are seeking to integrate students with a range of specific needs into mainstream education. In a similar vein, some countries and economies have taken measures to increase the participation of under-represented groups at different levels of the education system. Target groups for these policies include students from low-income families and students from minority ethnic and minority-language backgrounds.

For example, in Slovenia, several key measures involved working directly with Roma families and communities to increase the participation and success of Roma students in education. Roma assistants support families in communicating with school and kindergarten staff and work with educational institutions to foster Roma children’s’ performance and social integration. Multi-purpose centres based in Roma settlements work with children and families to strengthen basic skills, but also provide extra-curricular activities to help them better respond to needs emerging from their environments. As well as making progress on the central aim of improving school attendance among Roma students, the strategy has improved co-operation between teaching professionals and Roma parents (OECD, 2018[37]). Slovenia updated the strategy in 2020, following recommendations from an evaluation of the first phase and, in 2021, as part of amendments to the Norms and Standards for Kindergartens and Schools, the role of Roma assistants was formalised, enabling learning settings to create regular posts.

Another approach to reducing the impact of socio-economic disadvantage involves allocating additional resources based on student needs. This commonly involves directing additional financial or human resources to disadvantaged schools or regions.

In England (United Kingdom), the Pupil Premium Programme allocates additional funding to schools for every student who has received free school meals at any point in the last six years, and for current and previously looked-after children. While this funding mechanism enables schools to implement initiatives that fit their specific context, a number of measures are in place to support schools in using the pupil premium effectively. Schools can commission a pupil premium review led by a school leader with experience of improving learning outcomes for disadvantaged students, and the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) produces evidence on effective interventions, examples of best practices, and resources for schools. This evidence shows that the most successful interventions focus on improving the quality of teaching through teacher professional development. Schools are held accountable for their spending through school inspections, performance tables, and an online statement that explains how they are using the funding (Guerriero, 2017[92]).

In the context of school closures during the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, several countries and economies were able to adapt existing support mechanisms or put in place additional measures for students in need of special support. Finland provided earmarked grants for education providers to implement remedial measures targeted at disadvantaged students, migrant students, students with SEN or those at risk of drop-out. In Portugal, upon re-opening, schools together with the respective National Commission for the Promotion of the Rights and Protection of Children and Young People organised students’ welcoming and schoolwork processes, through the Multidisciplinary Support Team for Inclusive Education, in order to provide students at risk with greater training, education, well-being and integral development.

Some countries and economies implemented programmes to bridge learning gaps, including during the annual holiday season. France strengthened its Devoir Faits initiative, in which students receive homework support during dedicated time at school. Furthermore, some 1 million French school students took part in a ‘learning holidays’ programme during the summer of 2020. The programme gave students who had fallen behind during lockdown, particularly disadvantaged students, a chance to catch up on learning and to enjoy cultural and sporting activities. Denmark’s government established a DKK 200 million grant for local municipalities to implement remedial programmes during the summer holidays in 2020.

Spain has implemented a wide-ranging education recovery plan, with a particular focus on disadvantaged schools, and vulnerable groups such as SEN students and students from an immigrant background. As part of these measures, teaching assistants and mentors have provided personalised support to students with specific educational needs both inside and outside of school hours. Spain plans these actions with a view to extending or adapting measures beyond 2020/21 (Ministry of Education and Professional Training of Spain, 2021[110]). Slovenia֎ has also collected evidence on emergency education and recovery measures at several stages since the outbreak of the pandemic and is using this to inform remedial measures.

  • Consider the complexity and multidimensionality of challenges facing disadvantaged learners. Inequities in education are often deeply entrenched, meaning that policy makers must develop coherent, complementary actions to redress them. As part of these efforts, policy makers need to keep an open perspective on the variety of supports that could be most helpful to students. For example, evidence collected for this framework shows the importance of facilitating additional time to help education staff undertake new actions; many effective strategies involve collaboration within and beyond the education sector and sharing best practices. Local actors also need capacity to develop tailored strategies based on their assessment of student needs (see Chapter 3).

  • Ensure the continuity of support for disadvantaged students. As local and global contexts continuously change, governments are often tempted to change approaches to support disadvantaged learners in tandem. However, evidence of successful policies of this nature shows the importance of policy continuity. Many of the successful strategies collected for this report have been in place for several years and maintained by different government administrations, with goals, inputs and outputs evolving based on emerging evidence. In the same way, the knowledge, structures, and relationships developed in several education systems through these strategies laid the foundation for a pandemic response targeted at those most in need. Moving forward, more recent efforts to support the learners who have been most affected by the pandemic will need to be considered in terms of how they can be sustained, monitored and enhanced coherently over longer time spans (OECD, 2020[19]). Since financial resources may be scarce in the years to come, it will be even more important to ensure that any new investment or the discontinuation of existing approaches is informed by evidence.

Contexts of imbalance mean that environments change, hindering to different extents learners’ opportunities to continue their education. This chapter has presented practical and actionable pointers that can help policy makers support learner resilience in the short and medium term. It has elaborated on how policy makers can provide learners with tools that will help them to better cope with these changing contexts, where uncertainty requires a whole new calibration of resources available to help them manage change. These resources need however to adopt a strategic approach, and be envisaged as building blocks that can empower learners to respond to future episodes of change and disruption. These building blocks include, for example, a strengthened sense of autonomy, growth mindset, or critical thinking. Similarly, the specific supports that education systems will be able to provide today will also underpin these future processes.

The evidence presented in this chapter points to two priority areas that can support this. Firstly, education systems urgently need to develop a whole child approach, with an understanding of how learners” multiple worlds interconnect, but also of how learning processes go beyond cognitive aspects, as they shape societies’ future citizens. Secondly, ensuring equity in learning opportunities is an undelayable priority, as learning gaps tend to grow exponentially in contexts of change and disruption.

However, also in more manageable and stable contexts, education systems need to retain lessons that can help education systems develop strength and resilience for the longer term. Education systems can explore alternatives to expose learners to controlled situations of risk and failure as opportunities for learning – rather than obstacles – in combination with these tools.

In the same way, policy makers can take the following questions emerging from the framework for reflection on future and radical steering of their education systems:

  • What if learners became empowered to learn in their own time and by their rules, rather than in adults’ time and by adults’ rules?

  • What if learners became valued and regular co-creators of policies and practices across education systems?

  • What if developing non-cognitive development became accepted as important as developing cognitive capacities, looking into aspects such as well-being or positive interactions between learners as individuals, as parameters of learning success?

  • What if students became “learning nomads”, expertly navigating virtual or physical settings and developing meaningful connections with a range of educators and other learners, as they take the centre stage in their learning processes?

  • What if the needs of disadvantaged learners were prioritised over the needs of advantaged learners as a shared educational imperative for future social prosperity?

Such reflection is the first step in building a bridge between the short- and medium-term action explored through this framework, and the larger-scale reimagining required to ensure that, in the long-term, resilient learners become the new status quo.


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