( 38 mins) The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted virtually every facet of life, including schooling for young people around the world. As students, teachers, and parents coped over the last year and a half with remote learning and the closing and reopening of schools, many took to social media to share their thoughts and perspectives. These discussions were often a window into the sentiments of arguably the three most important actors in any education system: the child, his or her educator, and the child’s primary caregiver. We have used innovative research methods to analyze these social media conversations both before COVID and once the pandemic hit the shores of England.
We were interested in what students, teachers, and parents were discussing but also if the conversations were aligned—in other words were these three groups talking about the same thing? We know from research on systems change that alignment among a range of actors in a system is a particularly important factor facilitating change. Recent research on education systems that have successfully reformed highlights how a lack of alignment among stakeholders, particularly as it relates to the values and beliefs around education, were barriers to change
As schools in England increasingly grapple with adjustments and improvisations due to the pandemic, a question remains if this disruption will lead to any lasting changes. We at the Center for Universal Education (CUE) at Brookings have argued that this disruption, while painful and overwhelming, could offer a “leapfrog” moment to transform so education systems can become more equitable and relevant than before COVID-19. A high degree of alignment among students, parents, and teachers would indicate readiness to change in the direction around shared sentiments, whereas a siloed or disparate set of conversations with little alignment would indicate a need to invest in deeper dialogue to make big education changes. In the absence of a coherent narrative on key elements, it can be difficult for education leaders to make changes without feeling like they have the public’s support.
As four key insights in this analysis will later show, teacher, parent, and student conversations on social media have been largely siloed within their individual groups and focused on different aspects of the education system. However, the pandemic—and the far-reaching issues generated by it, such as an exam-grading controversy and students’ mental health—represent important moments when the three groups united in joint conversations around education, ripening the possibility for change.
Why focus on England?
This particular analysis is limited to England, which we chose because of its representation in CUE’s Family Engagement in Education Network. Two England-based project collaborators are the Doncaster Metropolitan Borough Council in Northern England that provides schooling to 47,000 students from reception to year 13, and Parent Kind, the leading membership organization for parent-teacher associations across the U.K. We will do a “social listening” deep dive for a range of other jurisdictions represented in our network in the months to follow.
Why social listening?
Social listening is an innovative and relatively new research method for gathering and making sense of large amounts of social media data. We were particularly intrigued by the promise of social media data scraping for targeting the thoughts and sentiments of the millions of citizens whose voices simply cannot make it into even the most ambitious of surveys. Tracking large amounts of social media posts related to education can help illuminate public sentiment, as well as appetite for reform. We were specifically interested in alignment among different stakeholders: Are students, teachers, and parents saying the same things about education? Understanding types of conversations and sentiments around education conversations can help chart a new path for education as we emerge out of the pandemic.
How was the research done?
This project relied on Talkwalker, a social media data analytics platform. Talkwalker acts as a living archive of internet artifacts, pulling in every publicly available item from sources ranging from local news sites to social media platforms. For each item published, Talkwalker includes data on the text’s content, author, source, and engagement—including, for example, how many times a tweet was shared or an article’s view count. Talkwalker provides powerful analytical functions to complement its archival capabilities, and using its proprietary artificial intelligence software, we trained an algorithm to capture items related to our topic of interest. The resulting model pulled in online artifacts originating in England that in some way discussed education or schooling.
Our analysis was based on a random sample of 25 percent of all public, online conversations among average users related to education in England. Since we were interested in better understanding the insights of everyday people—rather than celebrities or politicians—we focused on “average users” and excluded “influencers” from our dataset. We segmented the data by actor to determine trends by user group, concentrating on students, teachers, and parents—though schools, businesses and expert professionals were also present in our dataset. We also filtered by distinct time periods between April 29, 2019 (before the COVID-19 pandemic) and June 1, 2021.
While social listening provides unique insight into people’s conversations and sentiments, it has various limitations. It can only capture conversations and glean insights from people who are online and participating in the conversation. Therefore, there are likely some groups whose voices are not heard using this method, including people who do not have access to the internet or smart phones or computers, who are illiterate, or who may have access to the internet and devices but are unable or unwilling to participate. Additionally, we only conducted our analysis in English, so our study excluded any conversations taking place in other languages. Our findings also reveal that younger and male voices are overly represented in the conversation. Many social media platforms restrict access to users below a certain age and parents are more likely to control young children’s access, leading to better representation among older teenagers in social media participation than young children. It should be noted that there are many online conversations that are not public, and therefore due to privacy laws, were not included in our analysis; these include online conversations in various platforms such as Facebook, Instagram, and TikTok.
Who is talking?
Many people in England have talked about education during the last two years. Our analysis found robust education conversations among everyday people, with approximately 16 million results during the more than two-year period of analysis. We analyzed a subset of this conversation—4 million results—representing 25 percent of the full volume of conversations on education among average users (Figure 1). The volume of conversation on education increased markedly in March 2020 during the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic and remained higher than pre-pandemic levels throughout the year. However, this did not last into 2021, with a drop-off in conversations in January 2021. The volume of education conversation in May 2021 was similar to that in May 2019.
Figure 1. Changes in volume of education conversations between May 2019 and May 2021
Source: Talkwalker and authors’ analysis.
Young adults between the ages of 18-35 were the most active voices, making up over 76 percent of all conversations with 25-35-year-olds making up almost half the users in our study. There was very limited participation from anyone 45 years or older (Figure 2).
Figure 2. Age of participants in education conversation
Source: Talkwalker and authors’ analysis.
There were more male than female voices in the education conversation over the past two years (Figure 3).
Figure 3. Gender of participants in education conversations
Source: Talkwalker and authors’ calculations.
The education conversation among average users took place across a range of media types—from social media platforms like Twitter to online forums for particular actors (such as parents or students) to blogs and news stories. The greatest share of education conversations took place on Twitter (85 percent), followed by forums, and then blogs (Figure 4). This breakdown does not necessarily correspond to the depth of content or discussion, however, as one tweet that is limited to 280 characters is counted the same as one blog post, which could be 2,000 words. Both are counted as one result in their respective category when calculating the share of media types.
Figure 4. The types of media where the education conversation took place
What is the nature of the conversation?
There are a wide range of motivations and objectives driving the different conversations around education. At any one time, some people want to solicit information from their networks, others want to vent their frustrations, some seek to share accomplishments, and others seek to convert people to their causes. We found that the conversations on education fell largely into four main types of discussions:
Resourcing. Conversations motivated by sharing information, resources, tools, advice, and tips.
Community building and connecting. Conversations motivated by connecting to others and building networks and a shared sense of community largely through seeking and offering news, sharing frustrations, and voicing appreciation.
Movements and advocacy. Conversations motivated by causes on particular topics, including on cultural moments such as Black Lives Matter or on specific interests such as outdoor education or educational practices for children with autism.
Sales and persuasion. Conversations motivated by convincing people to take a specific action, such as buying a product or using a certain practice.
In terms of what people were discussing across these types of conversations, we analyzed the most popular hashtags before and during the COVID-19 pandemic to get a picture of the nature of the national education conversation. We conducted a sentiment analysis on the top topics—thus, those topics in dark green are very positive, light green is trending toward positive, yellow is neutral, and red is negative (Figure 5). The more frequently a hashtag is used, the bigger it appears in the word cloud below.
Unsurprisingly, the national education conversation was more positive before COVID-19. Looking at the top hashtags from our education query as generated by Talkwalker’s algorithm, there were 25 hashtags with very positive sentiments in 2019 but only 13 such hashtags in 2021, with a much larger number of conversations reflecting a neutral sentiment during the pandemic. There were very few explicitly negative conversations, with only one—#Brexit—standing out in 2019 and only three—#BorisJohnson, #ClosetheSchools, and #WhatsHappeninginMyanmar—strongly negative conversations in 2021.
The topics of conversation also changed over time. Perhaps the most obvious and expected changes were the rise in new topics in 2020 that did not exist in 2019, such as #COVID-19, #BlackLivesMatter, #Lockdown, #homelearning, and #SchoolsReopening. As these topics entered the conversation, other topics such as #fun, #business, and #community became less popular. As we will discuss below, one topic that gained significant participants was #edutwitter—driven largely by teachers reaching out to share information and resources and to support each other.
Figure 5. Topics of conversation related to education pre-COVID-19 and during it
What are people talking about?
There is a large appetite to connect about education issues, but conversations are siloed and unaligned across students, teachers, and parents. The exception is key moments related to COVID-19 that united conversations across these three groups.
When we analyzed the conversations of students, teachers, and parents, we found a large appetite for connecting about education issues among these average social media users. However, there is not a common narrative across these conversations. Ultimately, we learned that stakeholders are not saying the same thing about education, but the exception to this is COVID-19. The pandemic became a unifying moment for students, teachers, and parents who all expressed frustrations with the difficult situation and sought and gave advice to and from others about how to cope. In other words, except for particular COVID-related moments such as the approach to exams, we did not find strong alignment across students, teachers, and parents in relation to what they expressed via social media.
While all stakeholders turned to social media to ask for help and share resources, students were especially preoccupied by exams, teachers were particularly vocal about student well-being and mental health, and parents were most concerned about numerous discrete interests, especially special needs education (“SEND”). Students were the most critical of the existing education system, sharing their in-the-moment frustrations around exams but also questioning the wisdom, utility, and relevance of how exams are currently structured and used. Teachers also expressed frustration at different elements of the education system, but they were most focused on finding ways to help solve the problems they or their peers faced day to day. Likewise, some parents posted their critiques of how the school system operates, but most were focused on how to support the particular needs of their children and their corresponding views about particular education approaches, programs, or practices that were important to them.
Across these conversations, there were particular moments where students, teachers, and parents were aligned in their discussion. England’s approach to grading exams in 2020 during the COVID-19 pandemic was an example of this, specifically as it relates to equity and fairness. Students were very vocal on this topic, and many teachers and parents chimed into the conversation. Another example is the concern about student mental health and well-being, a major concern for teachers, and, with the difficulties of COVID-19, parents also joined in the discussion expressing concern for their children’s emotional welfare.
There are likely a number of factors for these findings. First, several considerations could make students more critical of the system writ large versus teachers and parents. Certainly students, as the central subjects of the school system and the actors whose lives are most impacted by their experience, are one factor. Students’ position in society vis-à-vis teachers and parents is also likely another factor. The professional responsibility of teachers and familial responsibility of parents are likely to play a role in their focus on trying to navigate the current system in which they operate versus looking to change the system altogether. Additionally, another factor could be the social media platform itself. We analyzed public data where students, teachers, and parents had to self-identify, such as in their post or in their social media bio, as one of these three categories to be captured in our analysis. Speaking out candidly could be harder for teachers and parents given the relationships they may wish to retain at their schools or community. Second, the severity of the pandemic and its impacts on the daily lives of students, teachers, and parents was the likely reason it broke through as a topic everyone was talking about. The usefulness of social media to connect and help each other solve specific problems may also be why, except for particular COVID-related topics, the conversations are siloed. The problems that are front of mind for teachers, such as their classroom practice, are not the same topics that are front of mind for parents or students on a daily basis.
Below we review the four main insights on what students, teachers, and parents have talked about over the last two years and where there were differences and similarities.
Students, teachers, and parents are actively connecting with each other about education but largely in siloed conversations
Across many different topics and both prior to and during the pandemic, students, teachers, and parents are using social media to connect with each other, share information, and seek support. The COVID-19 pandemic contributed to an increase in the volume of some of these conversations, especially among teachers. For example, the rise in #edutwitter, which saw a 104 percent increase in the first nine months after the pandemic began, is one indication of the growing appetite to connect with each other about education. One unintended but positive byproduct of coping with COVID-19 is that it has expanded the space for different stakeholders to participate in these resourcing and community-building conversations and practices. These types of conversations reflect a diversity of posts from students sharing jokes about exams, teachers offering useful resources, and parents asking for advice. Overall, conversations were largely within groups (students reaching out to students, teachers connecting with other teachers, and parents primarily interacting with other parents).
For example, many students took to social media to share exam tips or ask for help from other students on particular subjects or share study resources. A student on the popular U.K. forum, thestudentroom.co.uk, who asked for help solving a chemistry A-level problem is a typical example of this type of exchange:
“Hey guys! I attempted this question and got it wrong. I checked the mark scheme and can’t make any sense of it for the life of me!! Could anyone please help me and try to explain what’s going on? I’ve also attached the mark scheme. Thanks” (May 1, 2021)
Teachers are frequently reaching out to each other to share stories, resources, and advice. They are by far the most active participants—compared to students and parents—in the resourcing and community-building conversations online. Most are participating in #edutwitter, but there are also a number of other smaller communities where teachers share resources such as #teacher5oclockclub, #teacher5aday, #SLTchat, #ukedchat, #NQT, and #CPD. One online teacher community is built around helping teachers expand their networks: #FFBWednesday stands for “follow, follow back” where teachers follow back any new followers to their Twitter account every Wednesday. Like #edutwitter, the #FFBWednesday community also saw a surge in participation after the onset of the pandemic.
Typical posts before and during the pandemic include anecdotes reinforcing positive teacher identity and accomplishments like the one this primary-grade teacher shared:
I love meeting other teachers ‘in the wild’. Saw a man with a large family. Him to his children – ‘Line up so I can check you’re all here.’ I walked past & said, ‘Teacher?’Him – ‘Reception’.Me – ‘Year 6’. We then fist bumped. 😂 #Edutwitter #primaryrocks #teachers #halfterm
— Emma Stanley 🙋🏻♀️ (@MissStanleyYr6) May 28, 2019
Teachers also frequently before and during the pandemic reached out to share useful resources. For example, this math teacher sharing a resource for helping students with multiplication tables:
Times table cards- a way for your children to practise times tables without just writing them out! Useful for warm ups, targeted individual work, interventions, etc. All come with answers! #edutwitter #maths https://t.co/WJXzrMYfeo pic.twitter.com/KeQqT4Wosd
— Sarah Farrell (@SarahFarrellKS2) September 22, 2019
In addition, teachers took to social media to help each other with a wide range of things, from new teachers asking for and receiving guidance, to finding connections on subjects or years, to supporting each other through the many difficulties they were encountering. This continued after the onset of COVID-19. For example, this teacher shared about helping a student with autism who has struggled amid COVID-19:
Today was my first day meeting my class (employed jan). A pupil with autism/anxiety has not managed a full day at school since lockdown 1. Today he came to class, I really tried my best to put him at ease and at lunch he asked me if I could go ring his mum to stay all day 🥰🥰
— Miss Smith (@Hannahmarie1402) March 8, 2021
This teacher is looking to expand her network of Year 5 teachers as she has recently been placed in that year:
I’ve just found out I’m in Year 5 next year! Looking for those KS2 (or any really) connections #FFBWednesday #educhat #TeacherFriends
— Georgia (@MissGSurtees) June 10, 2020
Or this new teacher who is looking for advice on how to get the attention of the class:
As a trainee teacher I’m interested to know what method you find most effective in getting the attention of the class: countdown, clap, hand in the air? Any contributions greatly appreciated #teamenglish #edutwitter #pgce
— Miss Fletcher (@missrfletcher) July 31, 2020
Parents also took to social media to connect, share, and seek advice. Many had warm words of gratitude for the teachers and schools who helped them through a difficult time, such as this parent:
I’ve taken my daughter out of school because I’m in an at-risk category. I can’t speak for everyone, of course, but her school was great. They understand the gravity of this. They’re worried too #schoolclosure
— Maria (@itsasheactually) March 16, 2020
Others posted their frustrations, fears, and anger, such as this parent:
“Your child will experience a mild illness”. This is what I was told when school sent my child home following a case of covid in her class.
My child didn’t experience a thing, but I, her mother, ended up fighting for my life. Just admit schools aren’t safe @educationgovuk .
— Nutellandchill (@nutellandchill) November 24, 2020
While others reached out simply to get information, ask for advice, or share resources, including this parent:
“I am new to mumsnet and I need some advice. I was hoping you experienced parents with pre-teens/ teens could help. Our DS is currently in year 6 and has been offered secondary school places at Highgate Wood and Maria Fidelis FCJ…. We would like to know from your experience which school would best meet her needs. A good SEN department is imperative.” (March 5, 2020)
With students leading the way, collective outrage over England’s 2020 grading controversy created alignment across all stakeholders and potentially impacted the government’s response
The national exams at the end of secondary school and the exams to gain entrance into higher education are the focus of much of the conversation among students. We examined in depth students’ conversations about both of these exams, namely the GCSEs and the A-levels. While exams were a popular student topic of conversation on social media before COVID-19—especially using the #Alevels with the corresponding year (e.g. #Alevels2019)—it was a very hot topic during the exam grading controversy of 2020 (see Box 1). We found teachers and parents alike—alongside students—reacted strongly to the exam controversy.
We found an initial spike in reaction posts from average users, including students, during the May-June 2019 timeframe, which is when exams were being taken; this was followed by a large spike in August 2019, which reflects when results were received. A spike in March 2020 corresponds with the discussion around school closures and concerns or inquiries about exam results. The largest spike—from the usual several hundred posts a day to almost 8,000 posts—was in August 2020, which coincided with exam results and the controversy around exam grading amid COVID-19 (Figure 6).
Box 1. Exams in England: A brief overview of the system and the COVID-19 response
General Certificate of Secondary Education or GCSE qualifications evaluate students across a range of academic subject areas. Examinations typically take place at Year 11 (students ages 15 to 16), which is the last year of compulsory education in the U.K. Advanced Level (A-Level) qualifications are subject-based qualifications for students ages 16 and older and are recognized for entry into higher education.
In response to the COVID-19 outbreak, the United Kingdom cancelled all 2020 GCSE and A-level examinations. In place of these assessments, Ofqual, the exams regulator in England, implemented an algorithm based on schools’ previous exam results to determine students’ individual results. There was outrage in response to this change, as approximately 40 percent of results for the A-level exams were downgraded from predicted teacher-assessed grades, and students, parents, and academic professionals alike demanded governmental action. This downgrade caused many students—especially those in less affluent schools—to be marked two or three grades lower than what teachers had originally predicted, resulting in many students losing their places at universities.
Secretary of State for Education, Gavin Williamson, and Ofqual apologized for the grading issues and announced that all A-level and GCSE exam results would be changed to teacher-assessed grades. While this solution was largely preferred over the algorithm, it was a difficult request of teachers, as they only had the data that was available to them and unconscious biases may have impacted how they assessed some students.
Figure 6. Number of posts related to exams between April 2019 and May 2021
Source: Talkwalker and authors’ analysis.
Many students expressed outrage and frustration at what they saw as an unfair approach to delivering the GCSEs and A-levels amid the pandemic:
the year above and below me got their predicted grades with only missing 2 months and only 1000 cases. we are at 50,000 cases a day. they really expect us to sit a-level exams??? #schoolsreopeninguk pic.twitter.com/sYQKt7C3ao
— Katie 🌱 (@katie0773) December 30, 2020
Students also directed criticism at the government’s handling of the situation, while at the same time defending their teachers. For example, this student criticized the short time period for pushing back exams and responded to an announcement from Education Secretary Gavin Williamson that exams would be delayed three weeks:
@samhackney9: “If you’d have consulted with students and teachers you’d know that 3 weeks is nothing. Content needs to be cut, coursework needs to be used and teachers need to have a role in this. It should not be solely exam based #alevels2021” (October 12, 2020)
Similarly, another student in a sarcastic post defended teachers while lashing out at the government:
Ah yes, let’s blame the teachers who spend their lives creating lesson plans, marking essays, supporting students and teaching the future generations. Let’s not blame the exam boards or the government.
— Macy…❤︎ (@MacySheil) August 13, 2020
Even recent graduates got involved in the discussion, such as this Ph.D. student:
The more I think the A Level results fiasco the angrier I get. This government has consistently let down and actively hurt the most vulnerable in our society.
— Holly Nielsen (@nielsen_holly) August 14, 2020
Students also decried the inequality inherent in the predicted grading approach. For example, these students commented on the income inequalities and racial bias within exam grading:
@madamammad: “Also absolute disgrace the way GCSE and A-Level grades will be downgraded if you go to a school in a bad area, yet private schools will be more likely to achieve their predicted grades. Pay your way through” (August 11, 2020)
Using predicted grades for exams can be slightly problematic . Especially for black students with biased and/or unsupportive teachers who tend to unpredictable students. Just personally teachers in my SHIT school would predict me C’s where I got A’s and A*s🥴
— Bobby🇰🇪 (@FreeBxbby) March 18, 2020
Many students who had completed secondary exams within the last few years went online to share their experience and reflect on the shortcomings of the A-level exams in general—even outside of the pandemic grading controversy. We commonly saw university and postgraduate students noting their success despite poor exam grades. For example, these Ph.D. students recounted their experiences and how exam grades did not define them:
I have a D in A-level biology and an E in chemistry. I picked myself up, did a foundation science degree and graduated top of the class in my medical biochemistry degree. I’ll be starting my PhD in cancer immunology in October. Grades don’t define you if you work hard! https://t.co/IhwxWTsIsX
— Emma Jennings (@EmmaKJennings) August 20, 2019
I was predicted BCB at A-level. I got AAB. I technically needed AAA to meet my Oxford conditions. St. Anne’s let me come anyway. They understood I was more than a letter on a piece of paper. Do you know what doesn’t have that kind of understanding: an algorithm.
— Jess Morley (@jessRmorley) August 11, 2020
While exams were not the major focus of discussion among teachers or parents like they were for students, the COVID-19 grading controversy brought them into the discussion. Some teachers expressed sympathy for students and deep frustration at the role they were asked to play in the process, for example:
I can’t wait until we can look back and laugh at the year the government got teachers to award all the GCSE and A Level grades, and the only guidance we got was stuff like “An A* is kind of like an A, but just…*better*” pic.twitter.com/cl534qU3XV
— Rosie (@brumrosie) May 12, 2021
I think a compromise would have been test 1 paper e.g. for GCSE and one or 2 papers- if 3 paoers do 2- for A Level but variables currently in place are bonkers…and the stress on teens let alone teachers for past weeks has been appalling
— Kathy M (@kvjm1) June 1, 2021
Parents weighed in on the controversy largely as it related to their own children’s experience. For example, this parent shares her anguish at the impact the A-level grading controversy has had on her daughter:
So my brilliant kid, who spent 5 years in and out of hospital and is disabled, had her teachers’ grades marked down and has lost her place at university. She got straight As at GCSE, mostly teaching herself in hospital. She called the uni. They said they’re full. I give up.
— Amanda Lees (@amandalees) August 13, 2020
This parent took to social media to express outrage at how the GCSE grading controversy affected one of his daughters’ classmates, Miles:
My kids go to Notre Dame High School. Miles is in my daughter’s year. Talented athlete. Bright. Black. Predicted A, A or B and a C. Got C, D, U. Absolute scandal. pic.twitter.com/nggOBO86bO
— Andrew Stronach (@aistronach) August 14, 2020
In summary, the role of exams in the English education system is one of—if not the—major preoccupations of students on social media, particularly those in secondary school. Exams intimately affect students’ lives and they, along with recent graduates, are frequently critical of the role exams play in their education. Given the major impact exams have on students combined with their vocal dissatisfaction of unjust grading policies, students appear to be the most ready for change of the three groups examined in the study. While exams were not the major topic for teachers and parents participating in online conversations, the grading controversy brought them into the conversation with messages that reinforced and often supported each other. This aligned response may have played a role in the government’s reversal of its predictive grading policy.
Students’ mental health and well-being have been top of mind both prior to and during COVID-19
Mental health and well-being are major topics of discussion related to education on social media. This issue has been prominent in the top 10 education-related hashtags both prior to and during COVID-19. Teachers and mental health experts are the main participants in this conversation. Most posts are focused on children—either raising awareness of the need to focus on children’s well-being or offering resources for parents or teachers to improve children’s well-being. However, much less focus has been on teachers’ own well-being.
Over the last two years, mental health and well-being has become an ongoing topic of conversation with several hundred posts a day (Figure 7). Surprisingly, given the concern around student’s mental health amid COVID-19, there was only a mild uptick in the conversation after the pandemic’s outbreak. We also see a drop-off in discussion around mental health at the end of 2020, following the overall decrease in the discussion of education generally.
Figure 7. Number of posts related to mental health and well-being
Source: Talkwalker and authors’ analysis.
Teachers in particular are concerned about their students’ stress and anxiety. Students’ ability to cope with the pressure of exams is one clear focus, particularly before the pandemic. After the onset of COVID-19, teachers are seeking guidance to help their students face the uncertainty of the pandemic. For example, before the pandemic, teachers offered students workshops to help prepare them to take their exams:
Year 10 GCSE PE students – don’t forget I’m running an exam technique workshop for you and your parents to attend this Thursday, 5-6pm. If you have lost your letter and want to attend, see me to let me know. @LuttHighPE @LuttHigh
— Mr Mather (@MrMatherPE) June 3, 2019
After almost two decades teaching GCSE students with SpLD I think that it’s more about reducing any other stressors at that time, the exam stress is almost unavoidable, properly training staff to fulfil their roles in providing AA & having the pupils practice with this too.
— Abigail Gray FCCT 💙 (@AbigailSENworks) May 13, 2019
Another post authored before COVID-19 by an exam results helpline offers mental health tips for students receiving their exam results:
Picking up your A level results this week?
We know it can be a hard time, so here’s our top tips for staying well!#ExamResults #alevelresultsday #Alevels #mentalhealth pic.twitter.com/DlWpMYLT89
— Exam Results Helpline (@exam_helpline) August 12, 2019
During the early days of the pandemic, a teacher offered mental health tips for students during COVID-19 and encouraged sharing among fellow teachers:
To help students stay mentally healthy during this period of uncertainty, I have put together this list of 10 proven tips. Please feel free to share. #COVID2019uk #SelfIsolation #StaySafeStayHome #education #Wellbeing #mentalhealth #SLTchat #edchat #ukedchat pic.twitter.com/RQdhNbyTAP
— Will Haines (@MrWillHaines) March 19, 2020
Throughout the pandemic, teachers have been working on addressing the mental health needs of their students:
Introduced well-being Wednesday to my morning form time and can honesty say I am buzzing for it tomorrow! The students really enjoyed it last week and had some fantastic comments! Utilising the @Headspace content on YouTube! #Wellbeing #MentalHealth #Education
— RJ Mewes (@RJ_Mewes) January 19, 2021
The mental well-being of all students, including our most vulnerable, is absolutely paramount now we are back in schools. The rise in mental illness within our UK young people is staggering over lockdown. Again really good to see this acknowledged but more can be done 🙏
— Emily Barber (@MsEmilyBarber) May 13, 2021
Interestingly, teacher well-being and mental health, although a much smaller focus of discussion, featured more prominently before the pandemic than during it. For example, in August 2019 a psychologist and community activist noted:
Unless we start valuing our teachers in a real way they will continue to leave the profession in droves. #School #leaders need to wake up to #teacher #wellbeing, what it means, why it is important & how to do it. @surreyeps @MartynReah @CharteredColl @edpsydan @growinggtschool https://t.co/SGa6E5xmEX
— Dr Sue Roffey (@SueRoffey) August 9, 2019
Teachers and education personnel also continued to focus on a wide range of well-being needs they felt were important beyond just coping with the pandemic. For example, this school nurse sharing insight about a new resource designed to support students in the transition from primary to secondary school:
STOP PRESS 1 of 2 📣📣#Northamptonshire #PrimaryschoolsWe have created a resource for year 6 children which can be accessed by schools or parent/carersDesigned to support #emotional #Wellbeing and build resilience at transition to secondary schoolhttps://t.co/JYYNErR1dr
— SchoolNurses NHFT 💙 (@NHFTSchoolNurse) July 9, 2020
Parents did join the conversation around student mental health and well-being, especially as they related to learning amid COVID-19, although not nearly as frequently as teachers and mental health experts. Parents largely focused on the experiences of their own children.
For example, a parent writing on Mumsnet.com, a popular online forum for parents, reached out to her community for support when her son’s increasing levels of anxiety prevented him from passing his school-leaving qualifications:
Lu9months:“my son is 16 and very bright but anxious. he was predicted excellent gcses. however his anxiety has become so severe that hes no longer able to get into school for the gcse assessments. he doesnt think he can do A levels now. im panicking about his future but all that really matters is his wellbeing. id love to hear stories of school/education problems all working out fine in the end, to help me focus on the here and now and stop worrying so much about what the future holds . Thanks.” (April 23, 2021)
Another parent on Twitter is concerned about how stressed her daughter is with the difficulties of wearing face masks in the heat:
I have just picked my daughter up from school,she is very stressed ,the school are making them wear masks in communal areas and she is barely able to breathe in this heat.She has also not been allowed to get a drink.We need to stand up to this Government as this is child abuse.
— 🌸 Lorraine 🌸 ❤ 🐎🐐☀️🌴🐬🐿️🐇🌹🦋🐓🐈🌳🌺🦆 (@lorrain00414525) September 15, 2020
In summary, children’s mental health and well-being has been an ongoing topic of conversation on social media for teachers before and during the pandemic—but much less so than for teachers’ own well-being. Many teachers are concerned with how to help students handle the stress in their lives, especially as it relates to schooling. Parents care about this too and amid COVID-19 have joined the online conversation alongside teachers, but it has been a less dramatic uniting of conversations than the exam controversy.
Parents have disparate interests and lack a unifying motivation to push for broader education change
Parents participating in the education conversation on social media are heavily focused on their personal experience and the particular needs of their children. We saw across the two years that parents have wide-ranging and disparate interests, including different interest groups for the specific learning needs—from autism to dyslexia—of their children. Many parents also voiced concern or pride about their child’s progress in school.
For example, parents of children with autism shared their experiences with the school system:
When a child cries every morning and every night because they have anxieties or fears around school & the parent(s) communicate this with school – listen and support – but never respond with ‘well the child is fine when they are here’ #SencoChat #Autism #MentalHealth #EduTwitter
— SEN Lisa 💙 (@Lisa_SEND) September 29, 2020
I just want to add something about free school meals, because my carers allowance is added as earnings, we do not get free school meals for our 2 young boys , think about that , penilised because I’m caring for my disabled son.
— Autism care and share (@autcareandshare) June 16, 2020
We saw many posts of parents celebrating their children’s accomplishments, such as this one:
Huge congratulations to my daughter Rebekah on passing the 12+ entrance exam and interview for Oundle School. It’s her ambition to be an engineer & I’m so grateful to Oundle for giving her this opportunity 🙏 pic.twitter.com/ByjuZDCiBG
— Dr Liz Sennitt Clough (@LizSennitt) February 24, 2021
Not surprisingly, with the onset of the pandemic, many parents took to social media to share their experiences and perspectives on coping with school closure and lockdown. Over and above their concerns with exam grading and students’ mental health, parents expressed frustration at coping with home learning and school closures and shared advice for how to handle the situation. For example below several Mumsnet parents were cited anonymously in a news story at the end of 2020:
“Blended/online learning does NOT work if you have multiple kids of different ages. It does not work if parents are working full time.”
“The guilt I felt over having my child in front of a screen for 10 hours a day was just unendurable.”
Parents, like teachers, also offered up tips and suggestions for coping with education amid the pandemic, as in this parent’s post cited in the BBC on March 21, 2020:
“The key is finding out what works for you as a family, but have a delineation between home life and school. Don’t spend all day in pyjamas. Come together for a mindfulness session rather than an assembly and do topic-based work, too. My daughter and I will do the Egyptians next week.” (March 21, 2020)
Parents also shared their support of their children’s schools thanking them for their flexibility and communication:
Just read the letter from the head teacher of my son’s primary school explaining why they have taken the decision to move to online learning. Magnificently written and she and the teachers have my full support #MakeSchoolsSafe
— Dr Yinka Olusoga (@YinkaOlusoga) January 3, 2021
Not all parents were forgiving, however, as many vented their frustrations upon what they viewed as incompetent political leadership. Parents had varying and diverse critiques, such as these two parents who criticize politicians from both the Conservative and Labour Parties:
If I’d voted in the way @Matt_VickersMP had this evening, I’m not sure I’d be able to sleep tonight. And I’m not exaggerating here. If a government chooses not to provide free school meals during half term for our most vulnerable children, what kind of government do we have?
— Matt Smith (@utb_smith) October 21, 2020
Liz Kendall pushing for teachers getting vaccinated over half term in that relentless Labour mantra. I’ve never once heard them mention teaching assistants, or childminders or police officers, or bus drivers or shop assistants. What’s special about teachers?
— Justine Carroll 🇬🇧 (@JustineClaire65) February 1, 2021
In summary, parents’ focus is—not surprisingly—on the particular needs of their children and how to help them in their educational journey. The daily tasks ahead of parents are what preoccupy them, and they reach out for connection, advice, support, and information around a variety of topics. The pandemic was understandably a topic of concern for many parents over and above the issues with exams and mental health, many highlighting how hard it was to cope but equally many thanking their child’s teachers and schools for coping well. However, overall parents’ sentiment on their child’s education is quite mixed with many pockets of narrowly focused conversations, demonstrating that there was no one common parent voice or perspective on social media. Without common interests and motivations among parents, it may be difficult to engage them in conversations about broader education system change.
There is strong appetite for connection and talking about education across everyday people from students to teachers to parents. However, except for connecting and commiserating about education amid COVID-19, these key actors in England’s education system are largely talking about different things in their online discussions. While students, teachers, and parents use social media to connect and share resources, each group tends to talk to each other versus across groups. Students frequently share resources and tips on exams, teachers share classroom resources and build their networks using hashtags like #edutwitter, and parents seek advice from other parents about their child’s schooling. The pandemic provided a unique moment where students, teachers, and parents shared a similar narrative as illustrated by the 2020 exam controversy. It is likely that this alignment and overwhelming criticisms were factors driving leaders to reverse course on the exam grading policy.
When key actors in a system are aligned in their desires—as evidenced by the sentiments expressed in their conversations—it is much more likely for systems to change in the direction stakeholders are collectively pushing. For education advocates and policymakers wishing to “build back better” and use the disruption of the pandemic to improve England’s education system, it will be important to engage students, teachers, and parents in the process. Because these actors have such disparate areas of attention, bringing them into a shared conversation is necessary—as it is unlikely to happen on its own—and social media and other online platforms are just a few of many venues to facilitate this. Perhaps the cohesive force of shared moments amid COVID-19 could be an entry point to exploring the possibility of developing a more aligned education narrative among students, teachers, and parents. The possibility of harnessing this moment to help leapfrog the English education system forward is one that would be well served by forging a shared vision and narrative of education.
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