This brief text presents some reflections that can be relevant for teachers, school managers and education policymakers.
By Calin Rus
Director, Intercultural Institute, Timisoara, Romania
1. COVID-19 crisis increased inequalities in access to quality education
The COVID-19 pandemic revealed existing inequalities in access to quality education and exacerbated these inequalities. Several studies carried out during this period  show that certain categories of students were excluded from the education process, not being able to join their peers in online classes. This was generally associated with lack of access to the necessary devices or lack of internet access. In the case of certain remote communities, whole schools or classes were affected.
Available statistics on this matter are often incomplete, because they do not take into account aspects related to the quality of teaching and the learning process.
Thus, having access to a device connected to the internet does not mean the same thing for all. There is a great difference between children having their own computer connected to the internet, and those who can borrow their parents’ phone for a few hours per day. There are many cases of families with disadvantaged backgrounds, with multiple children and only parents’ phones that can hardly be made available for online learning. The low quality of the internet connection represents sometimes an additional barrier to effective learning.
The home environment also plays a key role in the effectiveness of online learning. Privacy during connections and good conditions for individual study are not available in many cases for students from disadvantaged families. The background seen in the cameras during the online classes may also reinforce a feeling of inferiority.
Another key factor affecting the quality of education during this challenging period refers to the possibility or ability of parents to support their children's learning process. This is especially important for younger pupils and for children with various types of special needs.
2. Non-inclusive responses considered acceptable
The response of the education systems, schools and teachers to these challenges has been diverse, with some of the more difficult situations confronting schools that are least equipped and prepared to address them.
Unfortunately, in many cases, teachers struggling to adapt to distance learning chose to consider mostly the situation of those students who had the technology and the conditions for learning and simply ignored the needs of those who did not and who were not able to comply with the general requirements. Even teachers who in the past had made efforts to adapt their teaching to the diversity in their classes, felt now compelled to prioritise and accept that some students remain out of contact.
There was often specific and adapted support provided and additional efforts made by teachers and schools. However, such responses were generated according to the perceived reasonable possibilities, not according to the actual needs incurred for equal access to education to be provided. However, this did not solve the more complex and subtle effects of exclusion, which risk producing significant negative long-term consequences, including the feeling of disconnection from the class peers, negative image and self-image, frustration, and even pressure towards early school drop-out.
Roma were significantly more affected during this period. In many cases socio-economic disadvantage combines with lower possibilities of parents to support learning and with societal racism, amplified in this period by frequent negative portrayals in the mass-media and on social media. Subtle racist attitudes and behaviours are also manifested easily, even in the case of students who are able to go to school, in the context of the requirements for maintaining physical distance and avoiding contact or exchange of objects.
3. Focus on recovering knowledge acquisition loss instead of a wider focus on competences and inclusion
Despite public statements made at European level , discourses of education officials in various countries expressed a concern for the loss of content matter during the COVID-19 crisis. This reveals an implicit focus on knowledge acquisition. However, the pandemic emphasised once again that a school is not just a place where you acquire knowledge, but also a place of interaction and of socialisation, which needs to equip students with the competences they need for a life in democratic and culturally diverse societies, as individuals, as professionals and as citizens. It is now more obvious than before the pandemic that schools can either take an explicit responsibility in promoting the values of equality and human rights, or, even unwillingly, contribute to reproducing unfair structural social inequalities.
Therefore, awareness of the range of competences that the current situation is requiring, both from students and from teachers can help acknowledge better the competences that schools are generally responsible to develop.
Quality education must be inclusive . The Reference Framework of Competences for Democratic Culture (RFCDC) also explicitly promotes an inclusive approach to education. The RFCDC has proved to be very relevant in addressing various challenges that our societies are facing, and this is valid also for the response of education systems to the COVID-19 pandemic and its follow-up. The RFCDC, built around a model of competences including values, attitudes, skills, knowledge, and critical understanding, can help understand and address the current and future needs of students, parents, and teachers.
Thus, it has become clear during the pandemic, that current young generations need a different kind of approach to education, one that is not anymore focused on the transfer of knowledge from teachers to learners. This new approach is aimed at enabling all learners to take advantage of the easy access to information online, and requires learners to enhance their self-efficacy and tolerance of ambiguity, develop and employ autonomous learning skills, flexibility and adaptability, and use analytical and critical thinking to develop critical understanding. Learners will also need to use extensively their cooperation and conflict management skills, and make decisions informed not just by facts, but also by empathy and explicit commitment to values.
These tendencies in the focus of learning and in the role of teachers, already present before the pandemic, were brought to the forefront under the pressure of school closures. In reality, they are also what is needed for an effective education in the 21st century and what young people need, not just to become active citizens, but also for their personal development and for their professional life. These competences are equally important for promoting inclusive education. On one side, for children and young people belonging to disadvantaged groups. For example, developing self-efficacy is especially important for overcoming the risks of internalising a negative self-image, that may lead to lower school achievement and even school drop-out. On the other side, developing empathy, communication and cooperation skills and civic mindedness, can enhance the motivation and ability of children belonging to more privileged groups to relate to their peers that need additional support and provide such support themselves. For both categories, valuing human dignity and human rights, as well as a connection with all the other values in the model of competences for democratic culture, together with a critical understanding of human rights and social inequalities, are essential in taking a rights-based approach.
4. Supporting teachers to promote inclusive, competence-based education
The analysis outlined above of the competences that teachers need to develop among children, can also provide indications about what teachers need to do, what training and support they need and how the whole community can mobilise to support schools. In order to respond effectively and appropriately to the current challenges, to develop the competences of learners and to promote inclusive education, teachers also need to be supported in acknowledging, developing and using their own competences for democratic culture.
The Council of Europe is also currently developing a training package that can be used to deliver training for teachers at both European and national levels, based on the RFCDC.
Considering the challenges described above and the framework and resources provided by the Council of Europe, there is also a lot that can be done at the level of each education system in order to respond to the current needs and to ensure equal access to quality education for all in a long term.
5. New education policies building on the lessons of the COVID-19 crisis
One lesson to draw from the current situation, considering also the technological evolutions foreseen for the following years, refers to the way in which investment in technology is made. In the past, the tendency was to equip specific spaces in schools, such as computer labs, and later expanded to equipping every classroom with internet-connected devices. It makes more sense now, from both an inclusive and a pragmatic perspective, to consider equipping learners with technology, instead of schools. This will likely be significantly facilitated by the expansion of broadband and 5G internet, as well as by the tendency to shift computing power from devices to the “Cloud”. Thus, the extensive use of cloud computing as a public service provided by the school will enable all learners to have good quality access to information and connection with others at a reasonable cost, and increase the quality of teaching and learning processes, whether they take place online or in presence.
A new, more inclusive approach will be needed also towards the curriculum. Instead of prescribing what learners are expected to know and be able to do, with a general approach, curriculums can be more effective if they allow teachers to take into account what students actually know and what they learn informally, while considering also the variety of situations and experiences they may have, in order to prevent exclusion. This can refer also to allowing a more flexible and open use of information that students find online, while focusing on the development of autonomous learning skills and critical thinking to enable them to make choices and understand the information they access.
Teachers will go more and more beyond their role as a source of knowledge, towards being guides and facilitators of processes of interaction that learners have with various sources of information, with peers and with social reality. Teachers need also to be better prepared to promote an inclusive approach and consider the subtle risks related to unwanted effects of labelling “students with special needs”, as well as those associated with subtle forms of institutional and interpersonal racism. The pre-service and in-service training of teachers should focus on these aspects and adapted training and support can be built and offered based on the resources provided by the Council of Europe in relation to the RFCDC and on the experience of the INSCHOOL project.
Inclusive education means also promoting a rights-based approach throughout school life, and a more active and inclusive participation of students in decision-making and in addressing together, in solidarity based on respect for human dignity, the challenges that some of their peers may face.
Schools can benefit a lot in terms of providing appropriate support for students who need it and for engaging in a systematic and explicit process of promoting inclusion if existing local community resources are being used. Cooperation with NGOs, but also with informal groups of volunteers which are properly guided and prepared, can allow teachers to focus more on the design of appropriate educational interventions and ensuring that the needs of all students are considered. However, this external support should not be seen as a discharge of responsibility on the side of the school, but a complement to the school commitment for inclusion.
The monitoring of the situation of groups facing special risks of exclusion, such as the Roma, is essential in order to make progress visible and to adapt interventions and make them more effective. Inclusion should also be mainstreamed as one of the features of a good school and reflected as such in the quality assurance procedures and the external evaluations of schools.
The experience of the INSCHOOL project shows that schools already engaged in participatory processes of advancing towards more inclusion were better equipped to respond to the needs of students at risk of exclusion and more resilient in adapting to the new context. They were supported by the project to adapt their institutional development plans and their activities in order to make a positive difference for all students, with special attention for Roma students. They were also provided with training and opportunities for peer exchange. Such an approach could be expanded and mainstreamed in education policies.
The new education which is to emerge after the pandemic, needs to be inclusive by design.
Ensuring equal access to quality education means that besides closing the gap in access to technology, which also brings the nowadays indispensable access to information, special attention is needed for an approach to learning that goes beyond the acquisition of knowledge and skills and includes all the competences for democratic culture. Specific attention is also necessary to more sensitive aspects of interpersonal and intergroup perceptions and relations. This can only happen if education policies are adjusted accordingly and if teachers, schools and other education stakeholders receive the proper support for accomplishing these tasks.
In this way, the lessons from the COVID-19 pandemic will enable education systems and institutions in Europe to be more inclusive and better prepared to meet future crises as well as able to adjust and improve their functioning with a view to longer term societal evolution based on technological progress in the service of human dignity and human rights.
*This document was produced with the financial assistance of the European Union. The views expressed herein can in no way be taken to reflect the official opinion of the European Union.
 Studies published at national level in various countries, by the European Commission, OECD, UNESCO, UNICEF, Save the Children, Caritas, etc. This is also confirmed by the reports of the INSCHOOL project.
 The education response to the COVID crisis. Political declaration of the Informal Conference of Ministers of Education organised under the Greek Chairmanship of the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe, 29 October 2020
 Recommendation CM/Rec(2012)13 of the Committee of Ministers to member States on ensuring quality education.