Education after the pandemic: “Thinking beyond where school is at today”

16 May 2022

Who suffered most from school closures, what could be done to remedy this situation, and why the skills of about 20 percent of all children will probably not be sufficient for vocational training: An interview with educational researcher Annabell Daniel.

© picture alliance/dpa | Sven Hoppe

Annabell Daniel is Professor of Educational Science with a Focus on Empirical Educational Research.

Educational inequality is the subject of your research. What has changed during the coronavirus pandemic in Germany?

Annabell Daniel: The conditions under which children and young people learn vary greatly depending on the resources available to them in the parental home. This became blatantly apparent in the phases of remote learning and alternation between remote learning and classroom tuition during the pandemic: Not every child has their own workplace and laptop or gets the support they need at home. It thus became clear to the public at large that learning depends very heavily on the parental home and how important school is to children’s development. Without school attendance, the influence of the family plays a much weightier role and exacerbates inequalities. Presence at school can at least partially mitigate the discrepancies.

We know from international studies that school closures resulted in noticeable declines in learning and performance. Not all schoolchildren were affected equally by this decline, however, but mainly children from socially disadvantaged families who had less support at home. These children fared much worse in the pandemic than children from socially privileged families. It is reasonable to assume that these findings also apply to Germany. Initial studies focused on elementary schools indicate that here, too, reading skills have deteriorated in particular among fourth-graders who did not have their own desk or Internet connectivity.

On the whole, it can be assumed that, with a view to both subject area skills and psychosocial consequences, those children and youngsters who already experienced worse domestic conditions before the pandemic were the ones who suffered most from the pandemic-related restrictions. It is very important to keep an eye on this group.

Treating inequality with inequality

What could be done to counteract these effects?

Initial offers of support are already available as part of the pandemic remedial program. These include both extracurricular offerings and measures to overcome learning gaps. However, it is important not to adopt the scattergun approach and distribute the available funds evenly across all schoolchildren, but to invest them where they are needed most.

Those children with the greatest needs should receive the greatest benefits, which means treating inequality with inequality: Greater flexibility, more funds and more personnel resources should be given to schools in difficult socio-spatial contexts and whose students tend to come from socially disadvantaged families.

Another goal of such support measures should be above all to reinforce basic language and mathematical skills, which are fundamental to effective learning in other areas as well.

The fact that certain schoolchildren have deficits in these areas is not something we have only discovered since the pandemic. A good 20 percent of youngsters – a figure that, sadly, has remained very constant in recent years – are deemed to possess poor skill levels. Their language and mathematical skills are probably not sufficient to enable them to successfully complete vocational training. That is alarming.

What will their career trajectory and life journey look like?

Many low-achieving young people who do not have even a basic school leaving certificate end up in what are known as prevocational programs because they cannot find an apprenticeship. Right now, they are likely to experience acute difficulties because the supply of apprenticeships has slumped in the wake of the pandemic.

In Germany, vocational training is the principal way to gain a foothold on the labor market, leaving aside the option of higher education. Youngsters who do not have the ability to go on and study thus have a very hard time. In their working life, insecure jobs with low incomes and little social prestige are often what awaits them.

Why does Germany lag so far behind in educational equity?

Every country knows educational inequality. But the correlation between social background and educational success is a bit weaker in some countries and – regrettably – rather stronger in others, such as Germany.

What was referred to as the PISA shock in the early 2000s showed that the link between social background and reading skills was stronger in Germany than in any other OECD country. That caused a stir, and action has been taken since then. Especially children and young people from socially disadvantaged families have improved their skills. However, the correlation between social background and skills acquisition is still very pronounced in international comparison.

It should nevertheless be stressed that these inequalities do not originate at school, where the likes of PISA tests bring them to light. On the contrary, they begin much earlier in the family, in early childhood. By the time children reach school age, huge discrepancies already exist as a function of social background. At elementary school, children from different social backgrounds demonstrate developmental variations of up to three years. And this divide propagates itself.

Measures must start early

What would need to happen for children here to grow up with greater educational equality?

That would take rigorous improvements in the whole of the education system, on every level: at school, in teacher training and above all in the tuition provided. It is important to target lasting structures rather than short-term programs.

There is no question that measures must start early. The earlier they begin, the more effective they can be. Ramping up the quantity and, even more so, the quality of early childhood education seems a promising approach. At an early stage, this could compensate the differences in capabilities that exist between groups from different social backgrounds.

© Henrik Pfeifer

And what needs to change in the schools?

We should try to think beyond where schools are at today. That involves investing more in the development of all-day schooling. Here we have seen quantitative expansion in recent years, but there is a lack of the binding quality criteria needed to create educational spaces within which schoolchildren can flourish and develop. This is not just about learning subjects, but also about social interaction. Nor is reducing nequalities something that can only be achieved in schools.

We need to look at children’s entire life environment and create positive solutions in cooperation with associations and children’s and young people’s welfare organizations.

You said earlier that we need good tuition. What would that look like?

We need tuition that addresses each child as an individual, that is less focused on the average skill levels of a class full of schoolchildren – and does not simply assume that a certain proportion will be left behind.

The objective must be to develop all schoolchildren in line with their abilities and what they bring with them. That will give everyone the chance to reach a level of competency that enables them to participate in society.

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