Recovery from COVID-19
Across all sectors, the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic continued to be felt throughout the academic year 2021-2022. This impact was apparent through continued operational and hygiene restrictions, such as the requirement to wear masks. These restrictions gradually eased as the year progressed, but as providers returned to a more ‘normal’ way of operating, the full impact of the previous year and a half on learners, staff and the general work of providers became more apparent.
In contrast to the previous year, no national lockdowns took place, but cases of COVID-19 amongst learners and staff caused disruption to teaching, learning and continuity of provision throughout the year. Some schools and other settings had to send year groups or classes home because of staffing issues caused by cases, and providers struggled to find supply staff. This was a particular challenge at the time of the rise in cases of the Omicron variant in Wales after Christmas and a further rise in cases in the summer term. This affected learners in special schools and PRUs especially, as they struggled to establish relationships with unfamiliar staff. The pandemic had a negative impact on the progress of many learners across most sectors, especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds.
An additional consequence of the pandemic was recruitment, particularly to support staff roles, including administrative and teaching assistant roles. Providers often found themselves competing against similarly or better paid jobs, but without being able to offer the flexibility of working from home and therefore struggling to attract candidates. This was a particular challenge for non-maintained settings where staff had gained alternative employment when they were closed during the pandemic. Recruiting Welsh-speaking staff continued to be a challenge across all sectors.
In most sectors, learners welcomed the return to face-to-face learning, which they generally preferred to online provision. This was particularly the case in schools, colleges, ITE (Initial Teacher Education) providers, learning in the justice sector and work-based learning, where engagement with learning was better than during periods of remote learning. In adult learning, including Welsh for adults, many learners liked the flexibility offered by online provision and felt that it fitted in well with their lifestyles. They also felt that online learning benefited their mental health and general well-being. As in England, there was a significant increase in the number of learners who elected to be home-educated following the pandemic. Despite a general preference for face-to-face provision in most sectors, providers saw the benefits of retaining aspects of online working, especially for staff professional learning and meetings. Staff across sectors improved their ability to deliver remote learning. Providers in sectors such as ITE, further education and work-based learning started to consider how they could retain aspects of remote learning in their provision.
There were some common pandemic-related features that were apparent across all or several sectors. These included positive features, such as:
- Leaders across sectors responded with agility to the pandemic, adapting their provision regularly and creatively to meet frequently changing restrictions. As the year progressed, many providers re-introduced activities that had been affected, such as activities in practical subjects, extra-curricular opportunities and trips.
- There was a strong focus on the well-being of learners and staff. This led to increased and more wide-ranging provision for supporting well-being in most sectors.
- Over the course of the year and a return to more ‘normal’ education, many of the ‘issues’ exacerbated by the pandemic, such as the deterioration in learners’ oracy and social skills or learner anxiety, showed gradual improvement but continued to persist.
- Overall, improved and increased communication during the pandemic led to better relationships with learners, parents and carers and a better understanding among providers of the families and communities they served.
There were also some common issues that affected a range of sectors:
- There was a general increase in demand for support for emotional and mental health issues across most sectors.
- Attendance rates in schools and PRUs in particular remained below pre-pandemic levels and issues of persistent absence proved more stubborn and difficult to tackle than previously.
- Overall, the literacy and numeracy skills of many children and young people were adversely affected by the pandemic, though they started to improve fairly swiftly on returning to face to face education. This was less of an issue for learners in sixth forms and adult learners, who generally engaged well with their learning during the pandemic. Providers in the further education and work-based learning sectors reported that, overall, learners had lower levels of literacy and numeracy skills on entering courses than was the case pre-pandemic. This was mainly due to gaps in their learning over the previous year and a half.
- The decline in learners’ oracy skills was a particular concern in schools and non-maintained settings, especially for the youngest children, though this generally improved on returning to face-to-face provision.
- Learners’ ability and readiness to use spoken Welsh was negatively impacted by long periods of non-contact with the language. In both Welsh and English-medium providers, many learners lacked confidence in speaking Welsh when they returned as their main contact with the language had always been through their educational provider. In secondary schools in particular there was a general decline in the use of Welsh between peers. Many Welsh-medium providers placed a strong emphasis on improving learners’ spoken Welsh, which had a positive impact.
- In many sectors there was a notable negative impact on the social skills of some learners, particularly in the first term of the academic year. For example, in non-maintained settings there was an increase in the number of children with less developed social and personal skills, who found it difficult to share and play with other children. In specials schools, PRUs and the justice sector, a few learners struggled to settle back in to more normal routines. In secondary schools, a minority of pupils had difficulties re-engaging with school life and expectations, leading to an increase in behaviour issues in the first term in particular.
- For sectors preparing for the Curriculum for Wales, the pandemic led to a slowing of progress on curriculum reform in some providers. This was the case in a few primary schools and many secondary schools, where the legislation timescale regarding the introduction of the Curriculum for Wales is different. This meant that students on ITE courses had very variable experiences of curriculum reform, depending on the schools in which they were based.
- Pandemic-related restrictions had a significant impact on vocational education and practical subjects and experiences. In work-based learning and further education, limitations on practical assessments and work placements led to a backlog of incomplete qualifications and a lack of practical experiences. Subjects such as music, design and technology and physical education were also severely affected by restrictions.
- Across sectors, many providers gradually resumed the aspects of their self-evaluation and quality assurance processes that had been paused because of the pandemic. However, a few providers across all sectors were slow to re-start this work, which led to them having an incomplete understanding of some important strengths and areas for improvement.