David James, Alex Morgan and Emmajane Milton, School of Social Sciences, Cardiff University, UK Anna Bryant, Jennie Clement, Judith Kneen and Gary Beauchamp, Cardiff School of Education and Social Policy, Cardiff Metropolitan University, UK

The COVID-19 pandemic evoked a rapid response in terms of assessment across educational settings (OECD, 2020). This occurred at a time of fundamental change in terms of educational policy in Wales, catalysed by the launch of ‘Education in Wales – Our National Mission’ (Welsh Government, 2017a). The Welsh Government has recently revised the professional standards for teaching and leadership (Welsh Government, 2017b); created a new National Approach to Professional Learning (Welsh Government, 2018a); reformed initial teacher education (Furlong, 2015); launched a new National Strategy for Educational Research and Enquiry (Welsh Government, 2019); and established a new National Academy for Educational Leadership (Welsh Government, 2018b). In addition, a new and ambitious Curriculum for Wales (Welsh Government, 2015) is to be rolled out in schools from 2022.

This article reports emerging findings from a study commissioned by the Welsh Government and undertaken by members of the Cardiff ITE Partnership, one of seven partnerships formed in the last two years to provide initial teacher education across Wales. The overarching aim was to develop understanding of ITE students’ experiences, given the disruption to learning and assessment in schools. It illuminates the range of these experiences and explores stakeholder perceptions of ITE students’ preparedness for entering the profession. In order to adequately address this central focus, we needed to understand the different ways in which the learning experiences in schools were changing, as the fundamental learning context of ITE students. This study therefore documents the challenges, responses and adjustments in Welsh schools to understand how ITE students’ opportunities and experiences were impacted.

Ethical approval was gained in accordance with BERA (2018) and Cardiff University’s institutional requirements. At this interim stage, data has been gathered from a cross-section of key stakeholders from the Cardiff and CaBan ITE Partnerships. School-based teacher education colleagues shaped our in-depth interview schedules through co-constructive workshops. Thirty interviews were conducted, spanning: nursery, primary, secondary and special settings; geographical locations in relation to local authorities and consortia; urban and rural schools; national categorisation status; language medium (Welsh/English/bilingual); and faith schools. Phase two of the study, currently underway, involves a national survey to complement the depth of analysis developed in the first phase, with data that supports a pan-Wales understanding.

An analysis of interview transcripts was undertaken collaboratively by the research team. The emerging themes outlined below may or may not become major themes in the final report for the Welsh Government, due in early summer 2021.

Emerging themes to date include:

  • marginalisation to dominance of assessment in schools
  • ITE students’ experiences of a pandemic-shaped practice
  • inequality of experience for ITE students on placement
  • challenges of ITE student assessment.
(i) Marginalisation to dominance of assessment in schools

From March to July 2020, along with other day-to-day features and processes of learning, assessment was significantly disrupted and marginalised for the majority of learners in schools. Our data suggests that in many cases assessment almost disappeared, as teachers made ‘keeping in contact’ and ‘learner wellbeing’ priorities at this time. Concerns were highlighted about being able to undertake meaningful assessment without being physically with learners. These concerns were especially strong amongst those working with the youngest children or in special schools. The impact of this on ITE students was substantial as they experienced an extensive loss of access to key areas of educational practice – ‘missing out’ on experiences of different practices, forms and functions of assessment.

From September 2020, most schools made a concerted effort to understand and evaluate the impact of the lockdown on learners, to ascertain where they ‘were’ and what needed to be done to support them in moving forward. In many instances, interviewees articulated an over-emphasis on assessment, which seemed to be an unintended consequence justified by the need to have data to be able to make judgements. In secondary schools this linked closely to the move to centre-based assessments. However, this had little direct impact on ITE students, as they were not typically placed in schools for much of this time through to December 2020.

From mid-December 2020 to mid-March 2021, ITE students in Wales largely experienced virtual placements, as schools returned to operating virtually for the majority of their learners. In secondary schools, our data suggests that the ongoing reliance on centre-based assessments was driving an increase in frequency and intensity of assessment of learners. It seems that assessment was becoming constant and undifferentiated, blurring the important distinctions between diagnostic, formative and summative forms. In primary contexts, leaders also reported an increase in emphasis on assessment on the basis of needing to understand ‘where their learners were’ and to inform strategic plans for catch-up. This intensification of focus on assessment of learners in schools meant that often ITE students were learning in changed ‘high-stakes’ contexts, which offered them fewer opportunities to participate in initiating or undertaking assessment practices themselves. In sum, the opportunities for engaging with assessment were lost to ITE students in two different ways, firstly through its sharp decline, and then later through its dominance and narrowing of purpose.

(ii) ITE students’ experiences of a pandemic-shaped practice

ITE students’ experiences of classroom practice since March 2020 have predominantly been online. Whilst some teachers and ITE students found opportunities for creativity and innovation in this environment, others found it difficult to establish or retain the sort of interactions in which they knew that their learners responded well. Where there were already established ways of working digitally, the transition appears to have been significantly smoother, perhaps because these teachers and learners experienced less of a change to established day-to-day practice and were able to build on prior learning and experience.

The limited face-to-face classroom opportunities that ITE students experienced during the pandemic were highly constrained by considerations of health and safety, and typically took the form of teaching ‘from the front’ or ‘behind the line’. Notable were the impoverished opportunities to undertake or participate in the normal cycle of assessment-related activities (e.g. marking books, participating in parent evenings, undertaking report writing, supporting external exam preparation activities and conducting classroom and national tests) – all key in learning about and building strong understanding of making professional judgements about learning, understanding learner progress, designing and implementing differentiation, sharing outcomes of assessment, and so forth.

(iii) Inequality of experience for ITE students on placement

Major worries were articulated about the intensification of inequalities. A common theme was the complexity and multifaceted nature of the diverse inequalities experienced by learners – reported to be far more acute and widespread in the context of the pandemic. Similarly, ITE student teachers had highly variable experiences depending on the schools in which they were placed and how these responded to COVID-19 and the associated restrictions. Some schools made it clear that their key priority was their learners and staff, and that the student teachers on placement were less of a concern. The student teachers’ own circumstances and individual needs also seemed to have had an important impact (e.g. missed days due to illness, caring responsibilities or their own additional learning needs). Some schools enabled a broad range of learning experiences online and encouraged student teachers to be fully involved in delivering these. Others provided more limited experiences, sometimes complicated by safeguarding issues in relation to access to equipment and the schools’/local authorities’ policies on teaching live lessons. Therefore, the range of experiences that student teachers had or conversely ‘missed out’ on was also highly variable. There was consensus that there were likely to be significant gaps in ITE students’ experiences of learning and assessment, although it was acknowledged that some may have developed other skillsets or may have benefited from working with experienced teachers who themselves were recast as novices in the face of COVID-related adjustments.

(iv) Challenges of ITE student assessment

Since March 2020, assessment of ITE students has been seriously disrupted and the amount of school-based classroom assessment reported to have taken place has been limited. The approach for the 2019/20 cohort had to suddenly and markedly shift from established practice in terms of gathering evidence to meet the standards. Interviewees reported that the evidence available was used creatively to calculate an ‘imagined or likely’ trajectory of how the students might have met the standards had they had pre-pandemic experiences. This was challenging in terms of assessing all students, and particularly difficult for borderline students who might have benefited from more time in the classroom or from extra support to develop their understanding and practice.

Conclusion

Together these findings confirm that in Wales the learning and assessment experiences of both learners in schools and ITE students have been profoundly impacted by the pandemic. Whilst not a surprise, the study serves to bring into sharper focus the range of ways in which this has manifested and the significant variability and inequity of experience for ITE students and becoming teachers, as in England (la Velle et al., 2020). Against the backdrop of ongoing, intense and extensive educational change in Wales, this research raises questions in relation to the confidence, competence and experiences of both current ITE students and those who qualified in summer 2020. It therefore seems vitally important, faced with this ‘new pedagogical imperative’ (Mutton, 2020, p. 441), to know where and with whom the responsibility lies to support these cohorts to identify and address the gaps in their professional knowledge and understanding. Given the nuanced and complex ways in which learners in schools have been impacted, for the foreseeable future these pandemic ITE cohorts will need further opportunities to develop and hone their professional judgement and the ‘adaptive expertise’ (Hammerness et al., 2012, p. 374) essential for supporting learner progress and development.

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