This is the first in a series of blogs written by Sian Parry which focus on education. Sian is a PhD candidate with the Centre for Health and Development, her research is focussing on employer engagement in secondary education.
The months following March 2020 have been unprecedented for all. For children, the subsequent lockdowns and school closures due to the Covid-19 pandemic have resulted in a significant impact on primary-school education.
What is the evidence on the Covid-19 pandemic and its effect on education now telling us? And how has the pandemic potentially impacted on existing inequalities within education?
There is no doubt that children of all ages have had their structures, routines and consequently their education disrupted; however, there is one group for who the impact of the pandemic may be disproportionally greater. Research prior to the lockdowns suggested that school closures were likely to widen levels of attainment between children experiencing economic and social inequality and disadvantage, compared to their peers (Education Endowment Foundation, 2020). Currently, primary schools with a high proportion of children eligible for free school meals (FSM), which is something researchers use as an indicator of children potentially experiencing socio-economic deprivation or disadvantage, are reporting decreases in attainment in reading, mathematics, and spelling, punctuation and grammar (RS Assessment, 2021). These decreases in attainment are twice the size compared with schools with fewer pupils eligible for FSMs (RS Assessment, 2021). We have also seen an increase in the number of children eligible for FSMs, with an extra 420,000 children in England now eligible since the first lockdown in March 2020 (Office for National Statistics, 2021). Decreases in household incomes, increases in families claiming universal credit, rising unemployment and growing food poverty have likely contributed to increased numbers of children eligible for FSMs. Additionally, there has been a 36% increase in the number of food parcels given out by food banks to children from 2019/20 to 2020/21 (Trussell Trust, 2021)
Access to the technology needed for remote learning may partly explain why children experiencing disadvantage have been disproportionally affected by the pandemic. During the initial lockdown in Spring 2020, only 38% of state school pupils, compared to 74% of private school pupils had access to remote learning on a full time basis (Centre for Economic Performance, 2020). This likely resulted because private schools and more affluent families already had the resources and systems in place to fall back on, highlighting the ‘digital divide’ between socioeconomic groups and Internet use. A nationwide effort during the Spring 2020 lockdown, to source and distribute laptops to children experiencing disadvantage illustrates the disparity. However, no significant changes in access to technology were reported during the lockdown of January 2021 (Coleman, 2021). This ‘digital divide’ is compounded by families from more deprived areas having poor-quality internet, the level of parents’ and teachers’ technological skills, and the home learning environment, which is linked to the engagement of parents in their child or children’s home schooling (Coleman, 2021). Further, a lack of adequate digital skills due to restricted access to technology may have exacerbated children’s digital exclusion (Coleman, 2021).
For children experiencing disadvantage and deprivation, the Covid-19 pandemic has highlighted and widened inequalities within education. The challenge now is to find effective strategies to help reduce and close any progress and attainment gaps, to avoid any long lasting damage to children’s education and futures.
Centre for Economic Performance (2020). Generation COVID: Emerging work and education inequalities. Retrieved from https://cep.lse.ac.uk/pubs/download/cepcovid-19-011.pdf
Coleman, V. (2021). Digital Divide in UK education during COVID-19 pandemic: Literature review. Cambridge Assessment Research Report. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Assessment.
Education Endowment Foundation (2020). Impact of school closures on the attainment gap: Rapid Evidence Assessment. London: Education Endowment Foundation.
Office for National Statistics (2021). Schools, pupils and their characteristics. Retrieved from https://explore-education-statistics.service.gov.uk/find-statistics/school-pupils-and-their-characteristics
Renaissance Learning and Education Policy Institute (2021). Understanding Progress in the 2021/21 Academic Year: Complete findings from the Autumn term June 2021. Retrieved from https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/994364/Understanding_Progress_in_the_2020_21_Academic_Year_Initial_Report_3_.pdf
RS Assessment (2021). The impact of school closure on spring 2021 attainment. Retrieved from https://www.risingstars-uk.com/getmedia/8181effc-58ef-48f7-9f78-94186578efa5/The_Impact_Of_School_Closures_May_2021
Trussell Trust (2021). End of year Stats. Retrieved from https://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/householdcharacteristics/homeinternetandsocialmediausage/articles/exploringtheuksdigitaldivide/2019-03-04#what-other-patterns-are-there-in-internet-usage
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