Back in June 2020, a McKinsey Report started to articulate the ways in which Covid-19 was changing consumer behavior across a number of sectors. In some cases, it suggested, the pace of acceleration and change was so remarkable that we literally shifted “decades in days”.
Anyone working in a school during the first quarter of 2020, I am guessing, will look back and agree. The exponential rise of a global pandemic, unprecedented existential and economic uncertainty about the future, and a sudden transition to distance or hybrid learning changed everything, all occurring within a matter of days. A tsunami of change, that also changed the way in which prospective parents selected the right school for their children. As I summarized once before:
Parental priorities are adapting to a new reality and we are being assessed on our ability to manage a crisis, implement ever-changing health & safety regulations, and our organisational agility both in terms of programming and pricing. In short, what parents want is not what they wanted in 2019.
But what are the longer term implications of this shift? Could it be that Covid-19 has already started to mould and influence the ways in which today’s generation of students will choose the right school for their children? Has this moment of massive disruption already altered the DNA of future decision-making?
I decided to test this idea on the school-aged people in my own family, by asking them to imagine a day in the future when they have to choose a school for their (not-yet-existing) children. What would be important for them in making this decision and has the Covid-19 pandemic influenced their thinking?
Given that it was a wet and wintery Sunday afternoon, I opened a bag of chips to inspire focus and reflection. Ten minutes later, five “raw” but powerful themes had emerged:
1. There was a fleeting reference to the importance of reputation and academic results, but nothing more than that. Once spoken of, these concepts were never mentioned again.
2. There were several references to the idea of access and support. Feeling “accepted” and “not left out” was key to a good education, they explained. The idea of support connected a variety of ideas, from having the right technology in the event of future pandemics, to the role of teachers in making students feel “safe”, “confident”, “happy”, and “comfortable”.
3. Likewise, personal choice and relevance came up a lot. The desire for choice was explained as no longer being satisfied with “set classes” or “traditional subjects”. Instead, they argued, school needs to be “relevant” and students need to “learn what they truly need to get along in life”. The assumption here was that much of what they were learning already felt irrelevant.
4. As the conversation drew to an end, there was recognition that, in the end, Covid-19 has taught us that education may be simpler than we have come to think. It was expressed in a single line: “You don’t necessarily need fancy things in order to have a good education”.
5. Finally, they all concluded, “school isn’t the most important thing in life”. There is more to childhood, they explained, than school. Childhood is also about family, friends, and other interests beyond the relatively limited world of school. So if someone were to ask right now whether school is worth all of the work, the hours, and the stress that we put in, then the answer is a resounding “no”.
Back in June 2020, the McKinsey Report concluded that the “stickiness” of these new consumer behaviours and ideas will ultimately depend on a number of factors and that the long term trajectory of these trends are, in no way, fixed in stone.
Still, I suggest, it is worth considering how the experience of school in 2021 is already moulding the decisions that will be taken tomorrow and the day after that.
David Willows is the Director of Advancement at the International School of Brussels