The world is experiencing first-hand the critical role schools have in shaping and contributing to society. The unfolding, often unpredictable, developments of COVID-19 is testing society in a number of ways. COVID-19 is pushing educational systems to re-think and drastically change how schooling is provided (Sun, Tang and Zuo, 2020). With such a large and important focus on lockdowns it is easy to neglect the educational implications of these rapid changes (Brooks et al., 2020). For example, over a billion children and youth across the world have recently been affected by school closures in some way. School closures have shown that many children and youth access school not only for academic purposes but also relief from difficult home situations, access to mental health and wellbeing supports, and meals (Grove and Laletas, 2020; Bale, Grove and Costello, 2020; Lee, 2020).
The world-wide crisis is also highlighting what schools contribute to our communities and society at large. It is providing insight into the potential detrimental economic, social and health implications of the loss of educational ecologies on individuals and in society. Educational ecologies are connected and integrated across contexts and situations that constitute a person’s life. They are settings where members are encouraged to have agency and are capable of leadership. It recognises the unique and valued contribution of all, including teachers, parents, community ‘experts’, students and peers to contribute to learning and development of the whole person – the physical, social, emotional and cognitive. COVID-19 is demonstrating how schooling is intertwined into the structure of humanity. The pandemic has provided a gateway opportunity to disrupt notions of traditional schooling models and a standardised view of one-size-fits-all approaches to education.
The wider value and importance of schools is unmistakeable. We are now witness to widespread, international acknowledgement of the value of educators and the prioritising of school systems (OECD, 2020; UNESCO, 2020). As their own ecological system, they contribute a critical piece to the way society functions. We need to think about how to improve our school systems. What if this moment was recognised as an opportunity to reconfigure education towards the system we need? We need to hold the devastating effects of the current time, so we can aim for what might be possible in the future, that wasn’t possible pre-COVID-19.
Understanding the impact of COVID-19 on marginalised groups in society is also critical. How are the current unprecedented changes impacting students with diverse needs; with disabilities and difficulties, from low social economic backgrounds, where English is a second language and/or trauma exists in their past? Continuing the status quo will not reduce disadvantage, and over time will likely continue to increase it. Improving educational opportunities requires a comprehensive and innovative response. There are key challenges in creating an inclusive school ecology: the complex and adult-only conceptualisation of inclusionAn approach where a school aims to ensure that all children ... More; the exclusion of young people’s narratives in their school experiences, and tackling the disadvantage gap.
Pre-pandemic data suggests that schools had many challenges – the rise in behavioural, mental health and wellbeing issues and responding the diverse needs of students to name a few. Failing to address these challenges can result in students being excluded from education, a trend that has been rising in Australia. Exclusion costs Australia around $23.2 billion a year (Mitchell Institute, 2017). The exclusion from education perpetuates cycles of a social disadvantage and can trigger long-term mental health and wellbeing issues (Hemphill et al., 2014). Childhood mental health challenges can have a significant negative impact on their education, such as potentially low educational achievement arising from a number of factors, ranging from absenteeism, poor academic productivity and withdrawing from education to suspension (Andrews and Wilding, 2004). Compounding these established challenges, there could be a social recession post-COVID (Education Futures, 2020).
The pursuit of inclusion in schools, the accepting of difference, is not only a political and economic goal with measurable outcomes but, importantly, it is also about including the student at the centre of their education where they are valued and have agency to become lifelong learners further and wider than school (Reindal, 2016; Grove and Trainer, 2020). Educators and youth need to consider the types of interactions which promote learning (e.g. effective feedback cycles, active participation) and the types of interactions which reduce barriers to success (e.g. appropriate adjustments) (Morton et al., 2012).
The Australian Government National School Reform Agreement 2019-2023 (Department of Education and Training, 2018) names these areas as major priorities. Australian Governments are increasingly looking to ‘high quality school education’ as a key way of dealing with these challenges to ‘equip Australians to succeed in an increasingly complex world’. The National School Reform Agreement is a joint agreement between the Commonwealth, States and Territories to lift student outcomes across Australian schools. Every Commonwealth, State and Territory has agreed that ‘Australia’s future stability and economic prosperity is reliant on an equitable and inclusive school system that instils in our young people the values, knowledge and skills required to be active, informed citizens and prepare them for the challenges of tomorrow’. These responses recognise the fundamental role an inclusive school system can have in reducing exclusion related harms. Given the high social, economic and health costs of exclusionary practices, the world cannot afford to ignore such opportunities.
International developmental agencies such as the United Nations, UNESCO, and the World Bank have lead advocating of inclusion as one of the core principles of schooling and education (Armstrong, Armstrong and Spandagou, 2010). Definitions of inclusion have, since the 1990s, changed and broadened to incorporate not only students with special educational needs, but all students, including those from marginalised or at-risk groups (Slee, 2011). Therefore, developing capabilities, not only for children with disabilities and difficulties, but for all children is needed. The purpose of an inclusive school ecology is to build communities that are characterised by the development of capabilities for every child (Reindal, 2010). Conceptualisations of inclusion have evolved over the three decades in which there has been a global and national shift towards inclusive education policies supporting the education of diverse students in regular schools. During this period of change there has been much discussion and debate about what inclusive education actually means and the construct continues to be refined in terms of its conceptual breadth (Deppeler et al., 2014). Original conceptualisations revolved around social justice and the rights of students with ‘special needs’ to access the regular educational system (Kiuppis, 2014; United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization, 1994).
More recently, the concept of inclusion has broadened and is used to refer to school systems, structures and classrooms that are committed to equity, accessibility and participation in high-quality education by all students regardless of their individual circumstances. Thus, traditional views of education as a place only for some need to be challenged. We need to move towards a future built on inclusive school structures, re-building a community of interested and engaged learners that extend beyond the four walls of a traditional school model. Changing the school ecology means developing positive psychosocial environments at school, known as ‘child-friendly schools’. Child-centred schools can positively affect the mental health and wellbeing of young people (WHO, 2003). The components of positive psychosocial environments at school include providing a friendly, rewarding and supportive atmosphere; supporting agency, control and active learning; and forbidding expulsion, physical punishment and violence. But what are young people’s understandings, experiences and views of these components? Critical perspectives are often missing in these conversations.
The social and economic costs of an inequitable school system are high and the evidence suggests that it will continue to grow without community and government action.
This can be addressed through innovation in:
- Youth social action: Engaging with young people’s perspectives as key stakeholders and moving away from tokenistic interactions, for example, forming student led committees where suggestions are listened to and actioned, lead an inclusive culture by re-thinking unproductive behaviour, focus not only on improving teacher culture, but including and responding to the diverse needs of students (Grove and Trainer, 2020)
- System-wide changes: Establishing different ways to address school disadvantages through identifying youth-informed indicators and ecologies of inclusion, for example, collaborating with young people on how their school community could be improved and what types of support work best (Grove, 2020);
- The potential and opportunities of digital technology in education, such as AI chatbots designed specifically for the school context that address risks
- New ways of engagement to encourage attendance at school with at-risk youths, such as having active school wellbeing teams and policies that host different types of supports (Henderson et al., 2020).