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ACA Think Pieces: The world after COVID-19


This contribution focuses on the challenges facing ‘early years’ training provision in England, initially intended as a move to improve quality. Previously, the  ‘early years’ sector did not have a tradition  of employing graduates to lead teaching practice. The field is diverse, with small private businesses providing much of the education and childcare places.

This programme has successfully recruited graduate professionals, working in early years settings, i.e. with young children under the age of five. The design has been informed by a belief that students benefit from the relationships they build with each other, and the programme team, through weekly university-based teaching sessions, and regular tutor visits to observe teaching practice. Hence the programme’s strength has been that students learn from each other, enabling the group to develop  a strong community of practice.

Covid-19 arrived suddenly for us at our mid-point review period. Both students and tutors were working hard to review their professional and academic progress, while setting targets for the final period of the programme. The speed at which we had to stop and work out how to change our way of working was quite overwhelming, for both students and tutors. Initially, we continued the review tutorials by telephone, but the situation was changing quickly. Almost overnight nurseries were closing, and trainees were anxious about the virus and their personal safety; when, or if they would be paid and be able to return to their jobs; how they would manage to complete the training programme.

The personal stories of students, facing major challenges, permeated the tutorials, with some  leaving quickly to return home to other parts of Europe before the borders closed. Others had to  face worries about paying the rent for flatmates who had left suddenly. The close relationships that we had already established with the student group both helped and hindered the transition to alternative methods of distance and online learning. The students trusted that we would support them, and as Programme Leader I confirmed this regularly through group emails; but there was also a yearning from both students and tutors to be able to return to more familiar training territory.

In response to this sense of loss, I avidly read the University’s instructions on how to deliver live seminars and lectures and tentatively invited the students to try out a virtual classroom session. As time passes, we are establishing a better rhythm with this, and we are all learning to mute our microphones to sneeze or if the phone rings unexpectedly! I have noticed that we are all becoming slightly more comfortable with our distance learning relationships and any feedback from the group about what they would like to focus on next can be responded to more flexibly than would have been the case previously.

I now begin to wonder what could be learned from this in a post Covid-19 world. I recall observing a colleague delivering a session to her group of distance learning students from around the world and being curious about how she had been able to establish the group’s sense of purpose and togetherness without ever meeting in person. Maybe there will be new possibilities for the future that can coexist comfortably with previous teaching methods. Will we be able to find an ethical way to share video observations instead of visiting students’ workplaces and placements to observe their teaching practice? The possibilities that are beginning to emerge will become more possible to think about and the more comfortable we become with communicating online will inevitably lead to new territory.

DILYS WILSON is a  Senior Lecturer in Early Childhood Studies at Middlesex University.

LESLEY WILSON is the former Secretary General of the European University Association (EUA).

The World after COVID-19 is a series of ‘think pieces’ which is published every Tuesday since early May. The pieces are authored by well- known experts in the field of international higher education. The basic question posed to them all is if and how the post-COVID-19 world will differ from the one we have until recently been used to.