Learning from Lockdown

The COVID-19 pandemic has tested our resources, our resilience and our creativity. It has reminded us of our interdependence, as well as of the frailty of our social contract. And while it has taken a huge personal and social toll, it has also revealed hidden reservoirs of strength and hope on which we might build.

Understanding what has happened and learning from it will be crucial if we are to build on these glimmers of hope in a positive, creative and inclusive way. This is why this excellent and timely report, developed by educational charity OPUS, is so important. The Further Education Trust for Leadership (FETL) is pleased to support and to commend it. It deserves to be widely read.

This report reflects intelligently on the experiences of further education staff during the lockdown, using the ‘listening post’ methodology developed by OPUS and used in a previous FETL publication, Leading by listening: Reflective learning. This innovative methodology uses group discussion with participants to unearth themes that speak to the experience of the whole sector. In this case, 19 listening posts took place online between September and November with staff representative of different parts of the FE workforce, with five further individual discussions with senior leaders.

The results presented here highlight the issues the sector has been struggling with during the pandemic, indicating both the challenges faced by colleagues and the way in which staff and leaders have responded. The treatment is nuanced and illuminating, covering a wide range of relevant themes. I would highlight, in particular, the extent to which frontline FE staff have stepped up to handle the issues that have emerged during lockdown, exercising agency in unanticipated ways. The findings of the report suggest that there is much untapped talent in the sector that could be used better. This, to me, is among the most important learnings of the crisis (in FE and beyond), one I hope we can build on in the months and years ahead.

While COVID-19 will be with us for some time to come, the emergence of effective vaccines and treatments for the virus gives some hope that we can begin to turn our minds to the future. It is natural to want things to return to normal. But there is also an opportunity here to reflect on how we might do things differently, in fairer and more sustainable and inclusive ways.

As Arundhati Roy wrote in April this year, crises such as the one we are living through are also ‘portals’ to the future, gateways ‘between one world and the next’. We must be sure to learn the lessons of the pandemic so that the world we build back is truly better than the one that preceded it. And while this report does not seek to offer definitive answers to such questions, it provides a critical snapshot of a sector in crisis mode and its attempt to act and think its way through and beyond it. As such, it is an invaluable aid to our reflection about what should come next.

Dame Ruth Silver is President of the Further Education Trust for Leadership