Unprecedented Times

04 May 2020

Jacqui O’Hanlon, Director of Education, Royal Shakespeare Company and Chair of the CLA writes about what she thinks the future has in store and how we can respond.

These are unprecedented times, giving many if not all of us the hardest professional and personal test we have ever faced.  No-one has the answers about what the future holds for society, education or arts and culture. For every piece of commentary, new information comes in that quickly makes it out of date. Solid ground is hard to find.

But the things that should not change are the missions of arts and cultural organisations, schools and universities. Democratising knowledge and art forms; democratising who makes, creates and shapes arts experiences; creating learning environments in which children can thrive and grow; ensuring every child in every school can participate in high quality arts and cultural learning experiences. These are things that mattered pre Covid 19 and they still matter now.

However, we also need to gather intelligence so we can better understand how we need to adapt to meet the challenges of these times in the short, medium and long term.

As a backbone organisation for arts education, that is something that the CLA can help with; providing signposting to the best research, researchers, educationalists and practitioners whose thinking and provocations can help inform our planning and decision making. Its work reminds us that the right of every child to arts and cultural learning is still the goal and that achieving it requires the combined forces of government and the education, arts and cultural sectors.

What comes next for our children, and arts and cultural learning? 

The shutdown of schools and cultural organisations does not affect everyone equally, and serves to reinforce and illustrate continuing inequalities in the lives of children and young people.

Digitally excluded

The move to push out content and learning online ‘for everyone’ exposes the fact that a percentage of young people and families have no access to computers or mobile devices. The rich outpouring of online content from arts organisations is not available to some of our most disadvantaged young people because they do not have the necessary technology or support to access and engage with it.

We also know that there are evidence gaps in understanding how effective online learning can be for students, particularly those who do not have access to family members with skills and time to help them. There is also a corresponding gap in remote teacher training and development. Joe Hallgarten writes about the latest research: Evidence on Efforts to Mitigate the Negative Educational Impact of Past Disease Outbreaks.

We know that all students are affected by the current crisis, but we cannot yet know what the longer-term impact will be. Becky Francis at EEF has painted a picture of it in the Tes.

Missed rites of passage

If we think of Year 6 children or Year 11s or Year 13s, or students taking finals, we know that those young people have missed a set of experiences that are the punctuation marks in a life. I still remember my last day of primary school, walking to school to take exams in the equivalent of Year 11 and taking finals. They are rites of passage that leave indelible imprints on memory. Some of the Covid-19 generation will not have those.

Learning losses

There are concerns about the losses in learning that children will have sustained, for example in language development. Children starting school in September are less likely to be school ready as they have missed weeks of nursery preparation. EAL students may be spending more time with family members who do not speak English which can widen the gap when they return to school. Amanda Spielman reported to the Education Select Committee in April that she was “seriously concerned” about the impact of school closures on the most disadvantaged children.

Layers of trauma

Speaking with teacher colleagues in China last week, they explained that students are having a staggered return to schools. It is happening region by region and exam groups are being prioritised for re-entry to buildings - Year 10s and Year 12s.  Gavin Williamson, Secretary of State for Education, told the Education Select Committee in April that he expected schools to open in “…a phased manner”.

Our teacher colleagues in China also reported early concerns about the psychological impact that lockdown has had on their students. They say that those returning to the classroom are quieter and that there are clearly layers of trauma that will emerge over time in some.

So, what role can our work play? 

At the same time as painting quite a bleak picture, we are also seeing an explosion of colour. We are seeing people making and doing and sharing through social media or in the windows of our houses. We are awash with rainbows. We have never seen as many creative responses being made and shared by individuals, families, friends, strangers. That instinct to make and the instinct for community are keeping us going and perhaps developing where they did not previously exist.

Rebuilding communities

We know that children will be gaining valuable skills and capacities as they make and share creative work; these will be just as essential when our schools and buildings re-open as they were pre-closure. The socialisation or re-socialisation of children will be important; rebuilding classroom communities; remembering how to play and talk and make together.

Many schools already recognise the role that arts experiences play in language development, communication skills, confidence and empathy.  When schools re-open, getting our children involved in purposeful play, creative making and conversation will be important building blocks for recovery.


Our teacher colleagues have had to find new ways of setting and delivering lessons at the same time as fulfilling their own caring responsibilities.  The arts and cultural sector has been working to support teaching professionals through online resources and ongoing partnership. The relationships that educators form with arts organisations may be different during this period, but we can continue to be a support for each other. We are also learning new digital skills that open-up new opportunities for how we work together now and when schools and buildings reopen.  

What next?

One of our most important jobs now is listening to teachers and young people.

At the RSC we recently held a consultation with our Youth Advisory Board – young people aged nine to eighteen from across the English regions. We asked them about the experience of learning at home and in the main they talked of difficulties in concentrating and adjusting to the lack of routine; about a lack of motivation; a feeling of ‘what’s the point’ after exams have been cancelled; confusion about which platforms to look on to find the work being set by different teachers; a feeling of being in limbo. Out of the 17 young people on the video conference, one was thriving in the current context.

What they wanted from us was a way of out of Covid-19 through creative challenges that would give them something else to focus on and think about.

Survival of arts educators and organisations

It feels clear that arts and cultural learning will be an important part of our collective recovery. But right now, there has never been a greater risk to the survival of artists and arts organisations who have traditionally worked hand-in-hand with teachers and senior leadership teams to deliver that work in schools.

Continuing collaboration between the arts, cultural and education sectors will be crucial in supporting young people in their school and wider communities and in ensuring that arts and cultural learning remain part of the discourse about the essential experiences that all young people have a right to.

We know that many colleagues in organisations are furloughed and we know that many of the freelancers who form the majority of our workforce have lost almost all of their work for now and in many cases the foreseeable future.

This is an extremely difficult time to create and sustain our trust in each other, our relationships and our partnerships, the very things that are going to enable us to survive in the months and years to come. How the CLA can support us in continuing to think and act together is something we are thinking deeply about, and we would really welcome your thoughts on ways that this can best be achieved.

Pressing questions

Good teaching is rooted in dialogue and in asking questions we genuinely want to know the answers to. Over the coming weeks the CLA will be commissioning think pieces that respond to some of the questions that feel most pressing to us:

  • What will children and teachers need when they return to school in the short and medium term? What part can arts and culture play? 
  • What will our most disadvantaged children need when they return to school and what role can arts and cultural learning play in supporting them?
  • What is Covid-19 teaching us to do differently in arts and cultural education? 
  • What are some of the changes we might see in schools and in the arts and cultural sector after the Covid-19 crisis is past?

We hope these commissions will provide a mixture of solid solutions for how we can work together for the best results together with providing provocations that help us think in new ways about our response.

If you have thoughts you’d like to contribute on these questions, please send them to and we’ll publish a selection on the CLA website.

Jacqui O’Hanlon
Chair of the Cultural Learning Alliance
Director of Education, Royal Shakespeare Company


Useful links

Creative Industries Policy and Evidence Centre research into how we are consuming culture at home during Covid-19

Think piece that proposes the development of a recovery curriculum in schools from Evidence for Learning

A blog from BERA that points to a series of wrong turns in contemporary education policy and practice that the authors feel Covid 19 exposes



3 Replies to "Unprecedented Times"

  1. Wonderfully thought provoking, perfectly articulated and solution focused in finding reassurance and hope through culture and arts for all!
    Thank you 🙂

  2. I found this article very useful as a drama group leader.
    We are currently providing free zoom group lessons to keep our drama group and community connected. Many of our students have additional needs and sign language is used in all our drama lessons.
    This article focused on everything myself and my colleagues have been discussing. Thank you

  3. You are doing a great job, over there in England. Wish we did the same, here in Holland!

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