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The End or a New Beginning?

by Cathy Duncan

For the past month, our high streets alongside our schools and colleges sit empty – closed until further notice. Both education and retail sectors fell into crisis almost overnight, both having to react with resilience, creativity and flexibility to survive what Covid-19 has thrown at them.

The high street, perhaps more than education, has had to reinvent itself many times before. The rise of internet shopping, high rental rates and declining footfall have left it fighting for its life on many occasions. The outbreak of coronavirus could well be the final nail in the coffin. Indeed, some experts are predicting the current pandemic could deliver the fatal blow.

New landscape

Sadly many businesses and institutions will fail to recover following the outbreak of Covid-19. One thing we know for sure is that the landscape for both retail and education will change because of this virus.

Given the technology now available schools, colleges and universities have the capacity to offer remote learning to students. For the time being technology is replacing face-to-face teaching and teachers across the country are quickly adapting to new online innovations.

While coronavirus, along with the internet, may be killing the high street just now, it has also thrown education into crisis. But with each passing day parents up and down the country are realising home schooling will almost certainly be a passing fad. Nothing can replace face-to-face learning with social distancing the antithesis of that all schools stand for.

While children will initially embrace a new way of learning, they quickly worked out for themselves the serious flaws in the system. In the same way we were once told television would kill cinemas; cinemas would kill theatres; records would kill live music, it is unthinkable remote learning will kill off going to school.

Going offline

Similarly, high streets have always been social institutions, the heart and soul of many British communities. We are very quickly learning in these unprecedented times that a screen is not a life. We do not want to sit at home all day clicking. There are no “experiences” to be had staring at a computer. There is now a real opportunity for the town and city centres to become something different – where experience and community come together. People more than ever will be looking for services and experiences not available online.

Schools, like high streets, have always been spaces for the local community to come together. When a sense of normality returns some parents may opt to continue educating their children from home. But, they simply cannot come close to replicating the all-round experience of going to school.

While students once relished the prospect of summer holidays, they are now looking forward to going back to school. Waiting for the opportunity to see their friends again has helped our young people, not just parents, realise the importance education plays in their lives.

Renaissance

I genuinely believe the end of lockdown could be the start of a renaissance for the high street and offer education the chance to re-invent itself in a similar way.

This crisis has given schools an opportunity to rethink how we organise education. It has forced us to think creatively about our approach to teaching. We simply cannot just replicate our lessons in another medium. It has forced us to think about where and when young people learn, how they learn and what they are learning.

The coronavirus pandemic is giving us a glimpse of how both education and our high streets could and should evolve in the future.

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