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Wellbeing “must be at the heart of education”

We should reckon with and understand the consequences of recent crises – from Covid to climate to conflict – for learners, the Chief Executive of Cambridge University Press & Assessment Peter Phillips has told the world’s biggest gathering of education ministers.

Peter Phillips Chief Executive speaking at the education world forum 2022

We should reckon with and understand the consequences of recent crises – from Covid to climate to conflict – for learners, the Chief Executive of Cambridge University Press & Assessment has told the world’s biggest gathering of education ministers.

Speaking at the Education World Forum (EWF) in London this morning, Peter Phillips said wellbeing “has to be a top priority: for students, teachers and our whole community”.

He gave the example of a teacher from India who said that the covid pandemic meant they were “thrown into deep water so learned to swim faster”.

“And she’s right, isn’t she?” said Peter. “In a time of crisis, educators innovated, we achieved what was previously unimaginable. But is this frantic swimming – often against the tide – really sustainable, and at what cost to wellbeing?”

“It’s worth reminding ourselves that we cannot fix everything, and that’s OK,” he said. 

“Partnerships underpin almost every successful endeavour”


He was speaking alongside global education leaders, including Jaime Saavedra, Global Director for Education at the World Bank.

Learning from the pandemic

Jaime Saavedra warned of the consequences of the “worst education crisis in a century”, with the pandemic leading to vast increases in learning poverty, depression and anxiety, inequality and lost future earnings. 

Government investment in education worldwide is currently insufficient to tackle this. “The time to act is now,” he said.

Matsie Angelina Motshekga, South Africa’s Minister of Basic Education, gave a data-driven assessment of her country’s Covid-19 experience, which led to 1.3 years of learning loss.

The South African government was forced, she said, to be more open in policy making and better at measuring learning losses, as they fight “pandemic worsened learning poverty” and build a more resilient education system. That includes stronger competencies in basic scientific knowledge to counter fake news, prepare students for the complexities of 21st century life and encourage cohesion in a multilingual society.

Dr Hamad Al-Sheikh, Saudi Arabia’s Minister of Education, said that “Covid-19 was an opportunity to accelerate change and reform within the education system.” The pandemic’s disruption triggered greater investment and more rapid education reforms, including significant increases in school days and particularly learning hours for mathematics and science.

Peter Phillips pointed to evidence that students' mental health and wellbeing was seriously harmed around the world during the pandemic. “And right now,” he noted, “Ukrainian students and teachers face the most extreme form of trauma, as schools are destroyed, learners displaced and millions of children – an entire generation – have their education disrupted.”

Peter Phillips at Education World Forum 2022


Perseverance and resilience

Peter noted how research from the Centre for Evaluation and Monitoring in Cambridge found that teachers’ underlying working conditions during lockdown impacted their wellbeing far more than teaching through lockdown did. That showed how important it was to step back, see the bigger picture and fully understand a problem so its root causes could be tackled.

Cambridge University Press & Assessment took this approach when developing the Cambridge Wellbeing Check, a quick and intuitive, student-led barometer which draws on years of research to help teachers monitor wellbeing.

He drew on Cambridge’s recent work to support an online community of Ukrainian teachers who are collaborating with Chris Sowton, the author of ‘Teaching in Challenging Circumstances’, to exchange practical tips, ideas and support across borders. Cambridge has made the book free and accessible to everyone, among other initiatives from the Press & Assessment to support Ukraine’s learners

Peter reflected on the Cambridge Dictionary Word of the Year: perseverance. 

“We have persevered, and we have to help learners and teachers to persevere – and to thrive – by putting their wellbeing first,” he said.

The panel debated lessons from home schooling during the pandemic, forcing many families to engage in new ways with childrens’ education - in some cases, the moderator David Aaronovitch suggested, developing a newfound respect for teachers.

Peter said: “What we’ve seen in many countries is children of wealthier parents found it easier to learn from home, but for many children [closing schools] was a disaster for them. The scale of the attainment gap that was created by this is a real crisis for us that will last for a long time.”

Cambridge University Press & Assessment is a platinum sponsor of this week's EWF in London.