Updated: Mar 9, 2022
Courtesy of our Partners at St. Marys University, Twickenham, London, UK.
Over four years ago I embarked on mixed methods action research to explore how parent teacher meetings could be reengineered to become part of an enhanced inclusive approach to educational engagement.
Previous years had presented their challenges both to the research design and my professional capacity, but nothing compared to the last 18 months and the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Impact on the research
The first national lockdown period occurred during the initial research analysis resulting in a prolonged data collection period as methods required adapting or had to wait until the schools returned to conduct face-to-face aspects, such as student focus groups. This in turn led to a delayed start to the intervention phase. Compounding the issues with data collection was the difficulties in accessing participants as many had contracted COVID-19 or were self-isolating at home. The purpose of some intervention instruments had to be reconsidered due to the GCSE final assessment uncertainty and then the use of Teacher Assessed Grades rather than examinations. The nature of many interventions had to change with limited notice, repurposed for online use to make them accessible at home, not least, the meeting itself, which could be no longer conducted face-to-face. Viable online meeting alternatives were considered including specialist parent teacher meeting software. On investigation, the whole school benefits of the software were overwhelming and the schools involved in the study all adopted the system for meetings.
COVID-19 represented a Fait Accompli. I had no alternative but to adapt or face the failure of the research. The same can be said of schools, during the first and third lockdown, where there was an emergency transition to online classes within days. This transition presented significant obstacles including access to internet enabled devices and connectivity (Driessen, Beatty, Stokes, Wood & Ballen, 2020). As Harris and Jones (2020: 243) commented, the COVID-19 pandemic “redefined learning as a remote, screen-based activity limiting most learners to on-line teacher support”. During this time ‘connect to learn, learn to connect’ became a daily reality. But there were some glimmers of hope from the crisis; COVID-19 promoted a period of institutional self-examination and change, having “unleashed a wealth of energy in innovative, collaborative and laser-focused problem solving” (Hargreaves & Fullan, 2020:334). Schools started to collaborate more in a spirit of open professionalism to share good practice and strengthen the teaching community (Azorin, 2020; Hargreaves & Fullan, 2020).
Teachers and school leaders
The pandemic represented a great time of great anxiety for teachers; using unfamiliar technology they quickly needed to master to provide carefully individualised learning, that either supported blended or remote learning during lockdown. School leaders had to contend with a completely dynamic situation with little scope for long term planning; a balancing act of managing the well-being of their staff, while providing the best possible education for the students. Crisis and change management were essential skills (Harris & Jones, 2020), often required conjointly. In the school I work within, the forced change in practice resulted in greater use and confidence in IT by staff; all lessons are now streamed and recorded, meaning students unable to be in classes could still benefit from the live content. The Head of Drama even managed to rehearse the summer production online while the cast were self-isolating. Furthermore, we have found adopting home-school communication methods such as parent webinars, useful for keeping parents informed without being physically present or having to initiate contact.
Parents were under incredible strain during the pandemic, with changes to work practices and having the enhanced responsibility for the education of their child. While monitoring work completion at home would be a familiar activity for parents, supporting their child in online learning and ensuring they remained motivated, would have been a largely alien concept. Yet, there have been advantages; greater parental presence increased engagement in the child’s learning. The OECD framework by Reimers and Schleicher (2020), found strengthened involvement and cooperation by parents because of the pandemic. I found similar results in my research, with intensified parental engagement, certain parent academic socialisation processes became more focused and regular, such as supporting home learning activities, providing structure and goal setting.
The adverse affects on student’s well-being and learning cannot be under-estimated, never more so than for the vulnerable and those from low-income families. However, there may have been some unforeseen benefits. During student focus groups, many reported the altered nature of learning provided them with greater freedoms and flexibility for learning and removed wasted time commuting or moving between classes. For these students, the crisis acted as a useful scaffolding activity for burgeoning autonomy, managing their own learning and developing important learning characteristics (Reimers & Schleicher, 2020). Speaking from experience as a Senior School Leader, the pandemic has once again shown us that students are more resilient and adaptable than we give them credit for.
It was important to maintain perspective during the research, the issues I faced were trivial when compared to the devasting effect the pandemic had on families, communities and those who have lost loved ones. Flexibility and adaptability were integral to the research process. Sometimes it was necessary to seek alternatives, implementing a plan B, C or even a D. Focusing on the positives and identifying the silver linings was essential to ensuring research value. I spent years reading, conceptualising and preparing but within a matter of weeks, I was re-planning huge swathes of the research. But that is what happens when you operate in the swampy lowlands (Schön, 1995), sometimes the approach needs to be accepting of the imperfect. What is most important is that the outcomes are practical, accessible and make a difference.