The move to ‘home schooling’ has, quite rightly, triggered a storm of commentaries about how the gap between the disadvantaged and the middle class will widen.
Last week the House of Commons Education Select Committee conducted a session on the impact of COVID-19 on education and children’s services. Several MPs, particularly from more economically challenged northern constituencies, expressed their fears about inequity of access to education during school closures. The answer to many of their questions was ‘We don’t yet know’ – whether there is a correlation between pupils’ time studying and their socioeconomic position, how many disadvantaged learners are not eligible for free laptops – or when and how schools will re-open to more young people.
Committee chair Robert Halfon warned that the UK could be facing a ‘wave of educational poverty’ as a result of the lockdown – and of course there is a moral imperative to prioritise the needs of those who are already disadvantaged. However, emerging evidence suggests the picture is complex, and there are serious challenges across all social groups.
My own current research with primary schools and A Level providers has serendipitously been able to gather some information about school and college provision, and the way learners are responding. Providers have necessarily taken different decisions about their priorities for pupils’ support though, concerningly, there are well-respected providers across the range of social advantage who are not attempting to engage year 11 or 13 students in drawing together their learning as they would if they’d taken examinations. Such decisions will inevitably have implications for young people’s future thriving – including their confidence – in work or continued education.
On a bigger but less detailed scale, the Sutton Trust briefing released on 27 April begins: “23% of pupils are reported to be taking part in (some) live and recorded lessons online every day. However, pupils from middle class homes are much more likely to do so (30%), compared to working class pupils (16%)”. That leaves 70% of middle class pupils and 84% of working class pupils who are not: we are clearly a long way from a universal ‘technical solution’ to the challenge.
The report continues in that vein, suggesting that on most counts, young people in middle class homes are rather more effectively accessing structured school-organised education than their ‘working class’ peers. However, the percentages are relatively low throughout, except for those learners in independent schools who were already being expected to make heavy use of ICT.
The report shows, for example, that
- over 90% of teachers in schools in all contexts said they were providing work on a VLE (virtual learning environment) or a website, with some also sending out printed resources – but that access to online work necessarily varies considerably, and across every social group, because of both internet and device access.
- Only 12% of teachers in the most affluent state schools, and only 2% in the most deprived state schools, thought all their pupils would have adequate internet access.
- Hours spent working are comparable across social groups, though distinctions remain.
- However, 24% of teachers say that fewer than a quarter of children in their class are returning work they have been set. At least three-quarters of work is returned by pupils in only 24% of the most affluent state schools and 7% of the least – and it’s largely not of the same standard as the work achieved in the classroom.
So digital resources might vary, but the low level of effective engagement with school work across social groups is stark. We clearly have a long way to go in finding ways to set up learning tasks that young people find accessible and compelling, and in educating them and their parents to grasp the importance of engaging with this schoolwork on a routine basis. Of course there is good reason for concerns around the access to education of the most disadvantaged. But by concentrating on the gaps between pupils in different social groups, the report fails to foreground the wide range of concerns that apply to all.
I don’t believe ‘home education’ is, or should be, confined to what a school instigates or oversees, but these data suggest that when teachers do see classes again, they will have a task of gargantuan proportions. Not only will pupils be de-socialised for school, but they’ll be bringing an enormous range of learning gains and losses. Many will have developed in new ways, but the majority are likely not only to have significant gaps and losses in school learning, but to be suffering emotional challenges and, in some cases, trauma caused by their experiences over the lockdown period.
Unpicking and responding to that is highly skilled and often subject-specific work, especially critical in a broadly hierarchical subject such as mathematics – and exacerbated if there are also high stakes assessments on the horizon. So anything we can do to support, encourage, and inform teachers and young people in that endeavour is helpful. There will be a very large and long shadow, even if this lockdown does not become a repeated event –and a concomitant need for renewed sensitivities to the development of the whole young person – as well as attention to the whole teacher. And that will be a long-term challenge, not a quick fix.