School closures risk widening educational disparities

Yesterday, March 18th, in response to COVID-19 the Education Secretary, Gavin Williamson, announced that schools in England would close from Friday to all children except those of “key workers” and vulnerable children.

After a quick look at twitter there are tweets about children creating class timetables, jumping for joy and even promoting themselves to headteacher of their new home school. This group of children are the lucky ones – for many the closure of schools could mean the end of development, the end of learning and a very difficult home situation.

Educational attainment varies up and down our country. It varies by location, by ethnicity and by socio-economic status. Research by the Education Policy Institute shows that by the time a student finishes their GCSEs students who are eligible for Free School Meals are 18.1 months behind their classmates in terms of English and Maths attainment.[i]  

Differences in attainment by socio-economic status occur throughout the academic year for students. Every year during the six week summer holidays students experience summer learning loss or the “summer slide” as it is known in the US. Summer learning loss is defined as a loss of knowledge and academic skills over the long summer period. Evidence from the US shows summer learning loss affects children from lower socio-economic backgrounds the most.[ii] There is little evidence on this phenomenon in the UK – one of the first UK-based studies demonstrated that that summer learning loss, or at least stagnation, occurs in a population of children attending schools in areas of low socio-economic background in relation to spelling.[iii]

Schools could be closed from now until September – this increases the time frame in which learning loss could occur. Schools will provide learning material remotely and parents / guardians will teach – but this will not lead to the same outcomes for everyone.

Not only are we relying on parents to be able to teach the curriculum, but we are relying on everyone being able to access the materials. We can almost say for certain that most households have internet access but not everyone has a laptop, a printer or even a dining room table to learn on.

Research by TeacherTapp, which conducts polling on teachers, recently asked “Think of the class you taught last today. Imagine school was suddenly closed for a time. Could you set work remotely for that class to do?”, 38% of teachers have a platform they could use, 25% said they could figure it out but the remaining 32% did not think they could do it. The results show a clear difference by type of school and by affluence, 89% of private schools answered yes to the question, compared to 62% of state schools. Just over half (53%) of schools in deprived areas (high % of free school meals) could set work remotely if the school suddenly closed.

Schools in the most deprived pasts of the country are likely to experience several hurdles in order to get themselves ready for next week when the schools close – parents and teachers will need help. The first couple of weeks will be a learning experience for many.

Learning loss is not the only problem children from less advantage backgrounds will face now that the schools are closing. The Easter holidays would have begun in the next week and a half and then “holiday hunger” would have been an issue. The term holiday hunger refers to children suffering from household food insecurity during the holiday period, meaning that they or their other family members are having to skip meals, or have to reduce the quantity or quality of food that they eat. This issue is now not only confined to the (approx.) 13 weeks of holidays each year but potentially for the remaining four months of the school year. Holiday hunger has been widely discussed in parliament, but little action has been taken.[iv]

In light of school closures, the Department for Education have announced a voucher scheme for students eligible for Free Schools Meals to ensure they do not go hungry over the next weeks or months,[v] stating “we will give schools the flexibility to provide meals or vouchers to children who are eligible for free school meals.”

However, whilst this is a welcome step there are a range of issues, firstly the shops are empty, secondly it has not been stated whether the Free School Meal status of a child will be reviewed periodically or how schools should go about passing on these vouchers if we go into lockdown. There is a risk that as places of work close and people go into isolation the income status of a household and therefore their eligibility for FSM will also change.

The SMF advises the government to think about:

  1. How to help schools and parents cope with the move to remote working for children. How can the government monitor the quality of teaching occurring at home? Is there a way to support parents with teaching? How should the government make sure everyone can access their materials and that all students, but particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds, do not go backwards.
  2. Looking to the future – it is not acceptable that schools in the poorest areas do not have systems in place to deal with remote / virtual learning. We must work to future proof the education system for events on this magnitude in future.
  3. Whilst providing vouchers to FSM students is positive, at present there is no detail on their value. A bigger question is what happens to children not eligible for FSM who will go hungry or for children who experience changes to their FSM status.

To discuss this or other work contact the author,%20Defeyter%20-%20Investigation%20of%20Summer%20Learning%20Loss%20in%20the%20UK.pdf]



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