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How did local education and children’s services respond and adapt to the pandemic?

15 November 2021

Ben Bryant, of the Isos Partnership, a research agency looking at public sector policy and delivery, was the keynote speaker at the Education and Children’s Services Group Biennial General Meeting, where he presented a report looking at how local education and children’s services responded during the first 12 months of the pandemic.

He stressed that the research, which was commissioned by the Local Government Association, was not being offered as a ‘definitive view’ but said it was a perspective from various local authorities that they had been working with.

“Essentially, the report is a fairly unapologetic restatement of the role of local systems in education and children’s services. What I mean by that is the interconnection between all services, partners and agencies that operate within a local area, and within that the unique role of local authorities,” Mr Bryant said of the report’s conclusions.

Researchers spoke with senior council officers responsible for education and children’s services, elected officials, team mangers and school leaders across eight local areas.

It found that there were four distinct phases:

  • Phase 1, March to April 2020: The initial response to national lockdown, closure of early years settings and mainstream schools to all but a minority of pupils
  • Phase 2, May to July 2020: adapting to lockdown, planning for the return of in-person work, refining communications, practical assessments of PPE, IT and school meals.
  • Phase 3, September to December 2020: The new normal, focus on the return to in-person teaching and support for families, adjusting to growing ‘bubbles’
  • Phase 4, January to March 2021: Return to lockdown, focus on reducing transmission and drawing on the lessons of the first lockdown.

The common phases were a reflection, said Mr Bryant, of the unifying nature of the pandemic and how local systems were responding to national policies.

The findings were also a reminder of the much larger role that schools play in local communities.

“You don’t need me to tell you, the range of tasks, in addition to supporting learning, that schools have taken on during this period not just around supporting families, but in terms of contact tracing and the wider effort to stem the flow of transmission,” said Mr Bryant.

Opportunities

The report also found that there were some ‘key things’ that had been developed as a result of the lockdown, that many local leaders did not want to lose.

Chief among these were aspects of virtual working, which could be seen as a ‘toolkit’ for education and children services in the future.

It was also hoped that services and processes around access to support, such as for the vulnerable and children with special needs and disabilities, could be transformed.

Ben Bryant

“Many of you will remember that initial period in Spring 2020 where there was lots of work thinking about the children who might need to be in school, and who are the children that we need to have eyes on?

“That seemed to prompt a more joined up and sophisticated understanding of the determinants of vulnerability, rather than the labels of vulnerability,” said Mr Bryant.

Challenges

Understandably, it was a period when there were also considerable challenges.

The report found that the relationship between local authorities and central government became increasingly strained. The breakdown in trust was ‘unprecedented’ in 10-plus years of public sector research, revealed Mr Bryant.

“It was a complaint about a desire on the part of central government, particularly the DfE, to make policy, no doubt as they saw best, but without entering into a genuine dialogue with local systems and with local areas.”

There were also challenges around balancing of priorities and strain on resources, including risk of burnout and fatigue.

Implications and recommendations

“The first implication was around the impact on children, young people and families, and recognising that the pandemic hasn’t created a new set of needs and disadvantages. Rather it has exacerbated a whole set of underlying and existing needs in the system,” said My Bryant.

“Our argument in the report was if we’re serious about ‘building back better’ and it’s not just a slogan, then we have to be thinking more fundamentally than just a set of catch-up initiatives.”

It was a chance, he continued, to address ‘fundamental structural issues in the system.’

The recommendations stress “the importance of broadening the curriculum to reflect young people’s needs in schools; the importance of early years education, not just as ‘this is how we help parents go back to work’ but rather as a public good in its own right; a focus on emotional well-being and mental health both for young people and indeed for staff working across school settings and children’s services.”

Finally, the report was a ‘stark reminder about the inter-connected nature of local systems, not just as marriages proximity but as essential partnerships that work with and support local communities.

“The pandemic has demonstrated the necessity but also some of the clear benefits of that joined-up system way of working,” said Mr Bryant.

He added that this was still an ‘incomplete story’ with the research having been published in March 2021, but the effects of the pandemic were still being felt across education and children’s services.

Furthermore, Mr Bryant revealed that Isos Partnership was undertaking a new research project on behalf of the Department for Education, which looks “directly at the future role of local authorities, particularly in relation to. We see that very much as a continuation of some of the themes that we’re talking about in this research.”


Education and children's services

Prospect represents nearly 3,000 professionals in education, children's services, early years, commissioning and children's social care.