The impact of coronavirus on educational gaps is the focus of the following question to the Government on 4 June 2020: “Lord McConnell of Glenscorrodale to ask Her Majesty’s Government what action they will take to close any educational gaps arising from the school closures due to the COVID-19 pandemic”. 

This blog gives a brief introduction to some of the key issues and offers some suggestions for resources to help Members prepare for the question.  

On 18 March 2020, the Government closed schools until further notice in response to the spread of coronavirus. Only vulnerable pupils and children of key workers were able to continue attending. It has since been announced that schools would begin to gradually re-open for more children from 1 June.  

What education have children received during ‘lockdown’? 

About 80% of schools have remained open to offer schooling for children of key workers and those classified as ‘in need’. The Department for Education found about 2.6% of pupils were in school on 21 May. Around 75,000 vulnerable children were in school that same day, equal to 15% of all ‘children in need’ (those with an education, health or care plan). In early years childcare, about 5% (88,000) of children who usually attended in term time did so on 21 May.  

However, most children have been at home during the lockdown period. These children have been receiving a mixture of parent-led learning and school provided resources and classes. The Government has said that it is for each school “to determine how best to deliver education to its pupils” and therefore the Department for Education had “not required schools to teach online lessons and this is only one way in which they may opt to provide remote education to pupils”. Instead the department issued guidance for schools on delivering remote education.  

Research on remote education by the Sutton Trust found that 23% of pupils took part in live and recorded lessons online every day in April. Pupils from middle class homes were more likely to do so (30%), compared to working class pupils (16%). At private schools, 51% of primary and 57% of secondary students have accessed online lessons every day.  

A poll by YouGov found that 51% of teachers had pupils who had “dropped out of education altogether” during lockdown. 

What concerns have been raised about educational gaps? 

Various individuals and organisations have argued that school closures will have widened the educational attainment gap. For example, Vicki Stewart, deputy director at the Department for Education’s pupil premium and school food division, has said that the partial school closures would “almost certainly” have “a very significant impact” on the educational attainment gap. Speaking at an event, Ms Stewart said that the predictions are “stark”, stating that there could be up to a 75% widening.  

The Children’s Commissioner, Anne Longfield, has agreed, arguing that without intervention, school closures are likely to “widen the disadvantage gap further still”. She referred to the annual ‘learning loss’ experienced by pupils during summer holidays as evidence of this. The House of Commons Education Committee has also raised concerns. Speaking on the issue, the chair of the committee, Robert Halfon, said: 

There is huge and understandable concern that every day our young people are away from the classroom harms their prospects, with disadvantaged pupils at particular risk of falling behind still further. Increasing evidence suggests that a significant number of children from disadvantaged backgrounds have not had access to online learning, or even any education at all. 

Concerns have also been raised that disadvantaged students will continue to be affected when schools start to reopen. School senior leaders have predicted that when pupils begin returning to schools from 1 June, many parents will choose to keep their children at home. They have also estimated that children entitled to free school meals are less likely to return, raising concerns that “pupils in most need of access to education will be least likely to receive it”. Highly variable levels of attendance, ranging from 40% to 70%, were reported on 1 June as primary schools began to reopen.  

How has the Government responded and what else might it do? 

The Government has announced support for disadvantaged children as part of its response to the pandemic. In addition, press reports have suggested that it is considering several other policies to respond to the issue. Current and potential policies include: 

Support for remote learning 

In April 2020, the Government announced that it would provide digital devices and internet access for some disadvantaged children and young people. It has also issued guidance for schools on delivering remote education, including case studies and an initial list of free resources. In addition, it said schools could make use of Oak National Academy, an initiative led by teachers who have assembled video lessons and resources for any teacher in the country, which was launched online on 20 April.  

Catch-up premium 

It has been reported that the Government is considering a ‘catch-up premium’, where schools receive extra funding to spend on initiatives for vulnerable pupils. A group of MPs and Peers voiced support for this idea in April. They proposed a catch-up premium of £700 for every pupil on free school meals in secondary school. 

Summer camps 

The Government is also said to be considering summer camps as part of its response. The Children’s Commissioner, Ms Longfield, has said she supports summer schools in July and August for the most vulnerable students to help them catch up. However, it has been reported that some teacher unions may refuse to back the plans if it means members must work over summer. 

A report published by the Centre for Education and Youth has examined the idea of summer camps. It found that while some head teachers and academy chiefs believed that summer schools would play an “invaluable role in rebooting England’s education system”, others had argued that they are a “bad bet” and would be seen as a “punishment” by poorer pupils”. 

Tutoring pilot 

It has been reported that four charities—the Education Endowment Foundation, the Sutton Trust, Impetus and Nesta—have been in talks with the Government over plans for a national tutoring pilot. This pilot, which may not have government involvement, could see university students and training volunteers tutoring disadvantaged pupils. It has been suggested that if the pilot is a success, then the Government could fund a national roll-out of the scheme. 

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Image by Annie Spratt from Unsplash.