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Blog post Part of special issue: Covid-19, education and educational research

The fragilities in the English education system revealed by Covid-19, and how to put them right

Gemma Moss, Professor of Literacy at U C L Insitute of Education

Covid-19 has presented schools with a series of dilemmas since lockdown began, and continues to do so as schools seek to reopen to all their pupils.

There have been few reliable sources of advice for schools to turn to during the crisis. Government guidance has often appeared ill-informed and unhelpful, leaving schools to work out how to deal with the most pressing issues quickly and directly, using the resources they have to hand.

Our ESRC-funded research project* has been tracking what primary schools have been doing in response to Covid since the beginning of May, using a combination of surveys, interview data and documentary collection. Public debate and government announcements have often been at odds with schools’ experience on the ground (see Moss et al., 2020).

Key fragilities in the ways in which the English education system currently operates stem from over-centralisation, a lack of awareness of problems on the ground, and a preference for pressure-driven management linked to testing and inspection that ignores the material impacts of poverty on schools and communities.

Our analysis (ILC, 2020b, 2020c, 2020d) builds from our observation of how primary schools have balanced their duty of care for their pupils during the crisis with their duty to teach. This balancing act has been a particularly pressing concern for those schools working with our most disadvantaged communities, where the need to help families stay fed, and issues for pupils living in overcrowded conditions with no access to outside space to stay safe, have been particularly acute. (In the most affluent schools – that is, the quartile with the lowest take-up of free school meals – 46 per cent of teachers felt reassured that families had the necessary resources to support learning at home, but this proportion fell to only 6 per cent among teachers in the least affluent schools [Moss et al., 2020].)

The crucial role that primary schools play within their local communities, including through the support they offer for pupil health and welfare, is underacknowledged both in our funding formulae for schools and in our testing and inspection regimes. Using high-stakes accountability and norm-referenced testing as the drivers of system repair risks seriously distorting schools’ priorities at this critical time (ILC, 2020a).

‘England’s high-stakes accountability regime pressurises schools to focus their Covid recovery plans on teaching-to-the-test and over-targeted catch-up programmes, rather than urgently needed planning for a curriculum that can re-engage and reconnect children with learning more broadly.’

We know the pandemic has hit our poorest communities hardest. However, in the context of a high-stakes accountability regime of the kind in operation in England, speculative calculations of the long-term impacts of the Covid pandemic on system performance can create huge pressures on schools to focus their recovery plans on quickly meeting test targets. This may prove counterproductive, pushing schools into teaching to the test and over-targeting catch-up programmes at the precise moment at which they need to be planning for a curriculum that can re-engage and reconnect children with learning more broadly (ILC, 2020b).

Our systematic review of the literatures on learning loss and learning disruption concluded that the latter literature is more useful (Harmey & Moss, 2020) – not least in terms of the emphasis it places on recovery and resilience, rather than on speculative calculations that may exaggerate losses through the very methods they deploy. The literature on learning disruption recognises that recovery from a crisis takes time, including time for research. And that local knowledge, attuned to the many different ways in which the crisis will have impacted ‘here’, provides the best starting point.

From our research, we conclude there are three broad lessons for the English system to learn.

  1. We need stronger connections across the education system that can engage all stakeholders in deliberation over how things run.
  2. Funding to schools working with our most deprived communities needs to be more generous with respect to meeting children’s basic needs, including food, mental health and welfare.
  3. A punitive high-stakes accountability system creates instabilities in the system that we cannot afford.

The pandemic has highlighted deeper flaws in our system that need to be addressed. Government plans for recovery must change, or they will do more harm than good.

*This blog discusses findings from the research project, ‘A duty of care and a duty to teach: educational priorities in response to the Covid-19 crisis’. Funder: UKRI/ESRC Rapid Response to Covid-19 Call, project no. ES/V00414X/1. Researchers: Principal investigator: Gemma Moss; co-investigators: Alice Bradbury, Sam Duncan, Sinead Harmey and Rachael Levy.


Harmey, S., & Moss, G. (2020, July). Learning loss versus learning disruption: Written evidence submitted by the International Literacy Centre, UCL, Institute of Education, to the Education Select Committee Inquiry into the impact of Covid-19. Retrieved from

International Literacy Centre [ILC]. (2020a). Written evidence submitted to the Education Select Committee Inquiry into the impact of COVID-19 on education and children’s services. London. Downloaded:

International Literacy Centre [ILC]. (2020b). Responding to Covid-19, briefing note 1: Primary assessment and Covid. London: UCL Institute of Education. Retrieved from

International Literacy Centre [ILC]. (2020c). Responding to Covid-19, briefing note 2: Learning after lockdown. London: UCL Institute of Education. Retrieved from

International Literacy Centre (2020d). Responding to Covid-19, briefing note 3: Resetting educational priorities in challenging times. London: UCL Institute of Education. Retrieved from

Moss, G., Allen, R., Bradbury, A., Duncan, S., Harmey, S., & Levy, R. (2020). Primary teachers’ experience of the COVID-19 lockdown: Eight key messages for policymakers going forward. London: UCL Institute of Education. Retrieved from