"Our students have had to climb mountains and were then asked to do a 100-yard sprint at the end."
These were my words in relation to our group of Leaving Cert students on the day they received their results, in 2017. Before we had ever heard the word Covid and had little use for terms like remote learning, digital divide, and predicted grades.
Barriers to accessing education are not new phenomena — we’ve always been asking for the difficult, if not impossible, from a significant percentage of school goers in Ireland. At the Cork Life Centre we have the privilege of working with young people who do not cope with or are removed from the mainstream secondary school system.
Of course Covid-19 in all its glory and lessons has magnified this and made it more visible. Now we hear discourse like ‘we’re in the same storm but not the same boat’.
We must look at why the climb was harder and the boat less sea-worthy to begin with, and how children and young people who are vulnerable, poor and disadvantaged educationally are carrying the burden of the realities of remote learning.
Even in the best of times, our education system does not meet the needs of too significant a proportion of children and young people.
This is not the fault of teachers or principals or individual schools. Many go above and beyond to be flexible and meet children where they are, rather than where the education system decides they should be.
I’m thinking of the children that don’t manage in school because they are seen as having too many ‘difficult behaviours’ and how these children often can’t find anyone who can search for or understand the meaning of their behaviour.
The children lost in the sea of other children around them — they simply cannot cope with Ireland’s large class sizes.
The children that are already facing so many challenges in their personal lives that algebra, comprehensions, and essay-writing become just insurmountable, because they have so many other needs that should be met first.
What about the children and young people who come to Ireland under the most difficult circumstances to seek asylum and enter the Irish education system, a culture, curriculum and climate and language with which they are not familiar.
The children and young people in care, those struggling with addiction, their own, that of a parent or both. The ones who are struggling with mental health concerns, again their own, that of a parent or family member or both. And of course those navigating toxic home environments where abuse of every type could be characteristic.
All children need a number of key things from a learning environment that online and remote learning in the way it is currently set up in Ireland cannot guarantee (and indeed may never be able to)
- A safe space to work with optimum stimulation (not too little or not too much);
- a rhythm, routine, predictability;
- social and personal supports;
- a good nutritious meal in their stomach to allow them to learn;
- to be able to work and learn at their own pace;
- a community to belong to outside of home;
- the opportunity to try and succeed to overcome fear of failure; relationships with peers and with good adults.
There are lots of structural problems we can and have identified with remote, online or home learning when we reflect on the above needs and where and how those experiencing those needs will live: Cramped, overcrowded and difficult living conditions; lack of access to digital devices; wifi or connectivity; absence of school meals; lack of respite from challenging living situations; lack of mentoring and support to engage and communicate with peers, staff, daily demands.
Since our first lockdown in March 2020 our Government and Department of Education have had ample time to address some of the more technical or structural aspects-access to reliable broadband, every child having access to a device, provision of school meals to homes.
They have done better on some fronts than others but overall the report card isn’t stellar.
If we can’t get these things right we have no chance of getting to the very core of the matter and the problem with remote learning — the one underlined above — relationships.
There is hardly an educator alive who hasn’t had the privilege of watching Rita Pierson’s TED Talk (if you happen to be the outlier do look it up). She doesn’t hold back and puts a point on it when she says "Kids don't learn from people they don't like."
This applies most particularly to young people who struggle to access their education — even more than others they need relationships in order to be resilient enough to stick with learning. They need good adults who will champion them.
She says: "Every child deserves a champion; an adult who will never give up on them, who understands the power of connection and insists that they become the best they can possibly be."
Myself and my staff team along with educators across Ireland will try to replicate this feeling online, we will work harder than we ever have on our relationships and demonstrate how much we care, but trying to do this through a screen will always result in a digital divide.
Educators across Ireland are committed to this challenge for as long as it is vital for the safety of our communities. And are mindful that in the grips of a pandemic there are limits to what can be controlled.
However, when the very basic inputs like access to devices, reliable internet connection, timely planning, consultation, and announcements in relation to education provision, and contingency/alternative examination arrangements are not forthcoming nine months since our last lockdown, we end up in a crisis within a crisis where stakeholders are pitted against each other and learning becomes a battlefield instead of the safe haven our children and young people need it to be.
The beginning of how we can do better is by giving everyone a voice; and the loudest one needs to be that of children and young people.