Back to school

By Celia Foote

EVEN before the covid-19 pandemic there was a large gap in achievement between rich and poor school pupils. In Britain, for example, children from disadvantaged backgrounds were already twice as likely to leave school without basic qualifications in English and maths. After months of coronavirus-induced school closures, the inequality gap has grown even wider.

The reopening of schools on 8th March was a significant landmark in the government’s roadmap out of lockdown. But inequality in education is not an open and shut case. With the first lockdown a year ago, school attendance was limited to vulnerable pupils and the children of key workers. The numbers attending were low. Schools had to adjust to the new social distancing and cleaning requirements, while also trying to reach out to those pupils who were not allowed in school. IT was seen as an important part of the approach to educate children at home. In socially deprived areas, teachers often took work packs out to pupils at home and maintained personal contact with many struggling families.

With kids banned from classrooms, most learning has moved online. The shift has been easier for some than for others. In Britain, nearly two thirds of private schools already had platforms for online learning in place, compared to just a quarter of the most poorly funded state schools, according to the Sutton Trust. Well-off children, meanwhile, are far more likely to have access to the necessary kit, including laptops and reliable broadband internet access. Poorer ones have to compete with other family members for access to a sole laptop or use their smartphones. Some have to forgo lessons entirely. The Department for Education reckons that nearly one in eight children does not have internet access at home.

In April 2020, the government announced a scheme to provide IT equipment to vulnerable and disadvantaged pupils who met specific criteria. By May, headteachers were criticising the inadequate amount of IT equipment and the poor quality of some of it. By the start of 2021, and another lockdown, only the children of key workers and vulnerable pupils (including those without computers) were allowed back in schools. The government told  schools to revert to online teaching but again failed to produce the goods. Over a week into the new lockdown hundreds of school leaders were waiting for equipment.

The inequality index

Many children also lack the space, sometimes even the furniture to enable home study. Many households are struggling to pay bills and the cost of increased broadband charges is an extra cost they cannot meet. Those in higher income jobs are more likely to be able to work from home, and are therefore better able to support their children academically.

Since the beginning of Tory austerity a decade ago, inequality has increased – and this increase is starkly reflected in our schools. The pandemic has done most damage to those who are already disadvantaged. Schools are no exception to this pattern.

Many pupils miss the routine of a bricks-and-mortar classroom. Remote learning requires far more self-motivation, but don’t expect conditions to improve just because pupils are back at school. The true scale of the educational fallout from lockdown could remain hidden for years.

With the reopening of schools comes suggestions of how to remedy the loss of learning and the damage to children’s wellbeing. The question of this summer’s exams has been answered and will be based on teacher assessment. Schools and their staff will need additional time and resources to ensure all pupils have their educational and emotional needs met. In February, Boris Johnson appointed Sir Kevan Collins as his ‘education recovery commissioner’ and announced a £1 billion catch-up fund to subsidise tutoring.

Other ideas have been to lengthen the school day and shorten the summer holiday. Examination of such initiatives raises concerns over increasing pressure on the already vulnerable staff and pupils. It is to be hoped that the catch-up tsar will focus his efforts on collaborating with teaching and mental health professionals to develop a much needed response to the learning deficit.

A recent study looking at the impact of the pandemic on 62,000 pupils over eight months indicates that intervention needs to address the individual’s learning and wellbeing needs rather than a one-size-fits-all approach. Perhaps the private sector, where smaller classes are a significant feature, could be a model here.

In addition, an engaging range of relevant activities that complement rather than replicate the curriculum, where pupil participation is voluntary and does not rely on school staff to deliver it, could well appeal to and benefit many age groups. Unfortunately covid restrictions, as well as underfunding of schools and local authorities by successive Tory governments, have seen the closure of many youth services and extracurricular provisions. As a result, extra central funding is now urgently required.

Celia Foote is Secretary of the AGS

Photo by Kelly Sikkema

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