Maynooth University in partnership with the Irish Primary Principals’ Network (IPPN) and several other education representative bodies has undertaken extensive research of over 2,800 primary school leaders to assess their response to the closure of primary schools due to COVID-19, writes Dr Jolanta Burke and Dr Majella Dempsey, Maynooth University Department of Education.
The objective of the research, which was issued w/c 23rd March, was twofold. Firstly, it aimed to identify good practices that can be shared and replicated around the country, in order to help schools that found it particularly challenging to adapt to the change prompted by school closures.
Secondly, it aimed to establish what ‘scaffolding’ is required for schools to continue to work effectively during the temporary school closure.
A copy of the report is available upon request however a selection of noteworthy findings included:
- The majority of schools interact with their students at least once a week – over 70%.
- For 80% of schools, the reason for putting distance learning provisions in place was to support pupils, but in 40% of Special schools many leaders did it mainly to support parents.
- 64% of leaders reported that the areas of the curriculum that are easier to adapt for distance learning are English, Social, Environmental and Scientific Education (SESE), Physical Education and Mathematics.
- 80% of school leaders reported that Irish is the most difficult subject to adapt for distance learning.
- Some of the advantages for pupils of school closures included (1) an ability to explore online/distance learning; (2) an opportunity to revise what they have learnt, and (3) spending more quality time with family.
- Some of the disadvantages for pupils of school closure included (1) missing out on the social aspect of school; (2) unable to engage with distance learning due to access; (3) concern for food, safety and general wellbeing of some of the disadvantaged pupils.
- More than 1,000 school leaders commented that pupils had contacted them saying that they missed school.
- Some of the advantages for staff of school closure included (1) they are safer at home with their families; (2) an opportunity for teachers to embrace the world of digital learning, as they may have more time to explore it and rethink their planning of resources and learning; (3) opportunity to continue with their continuous professional development.
- Some of the disadvantages for staff of school closure included (1) staff feeling under pressure to provide online learning and some are feeling less comfortable about it than others; (2) worry about catching up when the schools re-open; (3) worried about some children staying at home without the supports they usually receive in school.
Overall, the research yielded the following observations:
- It was impressive how much schools have adapted in such as short space of time, with 80% of school making arrangements to interact with students on a regular basis.
- There is a digital divide that prevents some schools from fully engaging with their pupils with educators and parents using their personal resources to try and make contact through text, phonecalls and by posting out materials to pupils without internet access.
- Many of the primary school leader respondents were seeking official guidance and clarity on several issues, however it was noted that many of their concerns have been since addressed by the Department of Education e.g. concerns regarding school meals.
- The COVID-19 crisis has the potential to compound the inequalities that already exist in the Education system.
- The research highlighted the vital role played by supports available within the education system, such as IPPN, PDST, NCSE and many more showing the collaborative spirit of people in the face of crisis.
- Many teachers and pupils have embraced distance learning and all are on a steep learning curve that may, going forward, change the way we educate primary school pupils in the future.
- The research has highlighted the many resources that are already available to pupils out there, as well some areas where more work needs to be done, such as the provision of official guidance on what online resources are available to teachers for example.
- Special Education Needs (SEN), English as an Additional Language (EAL) and students who attend ASD units appear to have least resources available for them.
Dr Jolanta Burke, CPsychol Assistant Professor at the Maynooth University, Department of Education stated; “We are living in unprecedented times that call for unprecedented actions. The research was commissioned a week after the temporary school closures, with none of the stakeholders knowing how long this situation may last. Yet, while people in Ireland were still in the process of coming to terms with all changes, IPPN, PDST, INTO and primary management bodies acted promptly and commissioned Maynooth University, to assess the situation, so that they can make evidence-informed decisions about what structures they can put in place to best support school communities in this crisis. Now they are working hard in the background acting on the findings from what primary school leaders shared with them in the research and supporting school communities the best they can.”
“This research gives a voice to the many dedicated primary school leaders. Through the stories they have shared with us and the questions they have answered, we were astounded with how swiftly many of them have adapted to the changing learning environment and how committed our educators are to providing our children with the best education under extremely challenging circumstances.”
Dr Majella Dempsey, Assistant Professor and EdD Strand Leader for Curriculum Studies at Maynooth University commented; “We hope this report will help individuals, schools and policy makers to develop plans for dealing with school closure and it would be great to follow up and hear from teachers, parents/guardians and pupils on their experiences at this time”
Páiric Clerkin, IPPN CEO stated; “This report by Maynooth University, jointly commissioned by IPPN, INTO, primary education management bodies and PDST, collates and analyses the responses from over 2,800 primary school leaders to a survey researching how schools have managed since they were abruptly closed on Thursday 12th March. The report describes the incredible work primary schools have done to put systems, processes and communications in place in a matter of days in schools of all types and sizes across the country. There is strong evidence in the research of distributed leadership, collaboration, collegiality, innovation and creativity.”
“There is also significant concern about pupils with special educational needs and those in disadvantaged areas and ensuring they have the support they need. This report will help the stakeholders to refine the supports available to schools, and to clarify what is expected of schools at this very challenging time. We sincerely thank Dr Jolanta Burke and Dr Majella Dempsey for their work on this research and for pulling it together so quickly.”