School closures and educational disadvantage

We are now getting a better idea of the impact of school closures on children’s education (as I write this some students are going back to school but the picture is mixed, it is still not education as normal). Many schools have been going well beyond what is formally expected in supporting access to free school meals, contacting children at risk and supporting children on-line but there is overwhelming evidence that children’s learning has been adversely affected.

I noted in my previous blog that I was struck by the growth in live classes during this period of ‘lock down’ – i.e. synchronous classes where the teacher tries to as far as possible teach over Zoom, Teams or the equivalent in a style that mimics as far as possible what they would do in a physical classroom. Before ‘lock down’ live classes were very rare though I do remember some initiatives for hard to reach children, for minority subjects such as Latin when there not the numbers to teach in school, and on-line classes for gifted and talented students across a cluster of schools. Live classes were rare in most other countries too but were, I believe, a feature of rural schools in China.  My own on line teaching during lock down is limited. I have mostly been working  one to one with research students while the university is closed but I have done some live classes.  It is quite doable but there is a sense of talking into a void which makes you realise how many signals you pick up in a face to face classroom in ways that are hard to do on-line, especially if you are working through a presentation on a shared screen. Live classes can also feel overwhelming if you try to follow the chat feedback while listening for on screen questions at the same time. I think this means there is a tendency to ‘overteach’, or less politely talk too long and ask fewer questions, especially as on-line break out groups can be difficult to set up. Of course most school teachers  have been teaching far more live lessons than I have, and have developed confidence and skills with time,  but most look on these as a stop gap until institutions re-open.

So how has online learning been going in the school sector in England? In spite of the best efforts of many parents, teachers and students, recent research is suggesting that it has not been going well. School children are not accessing on-line classes as consistently as they did face to face but more striking is the disparity – the most disadvantaged pupils are getting the least teaching [1]. This seems primarily due to absent or inadequate technology which means that disadvantaged students cannot access the lessons in the first place. It is clear too that disadvantage is self-reinforcing. Parents with higher levels of education and professional jobs are better able to support the children through the school curriculum, are more likely to have networks to support their children’s learning and more likely to have access to adequate technology. They are more likely too to go to schools in which teachers have found it worthwhile to develop on-line resources prior to school closures. In contrast, in many schools in disadvantaged areas teachers have not developed the same level of  innovation on-line as significant numbers of students could not access anything they produced. Educational disadvantage has become a live political issue due to the very visible inequalities during lock down. But, in truth, differentiated outcomes have been particularly stark in England over many years and require something more than a quick fix to address.  School closures have simply accentuated the problem.

[1] Two recent reports give a similar picture:

Lucas, M.,Nelson, J. and Sims, D. (2020)  Schools Responses to Covid-19: Pupil Engagement in Remote Learning, Berkshire: NFER / Nuffield.

Montacute, R. (2020) Social Mobility and COVID-19: Implications of the Covid-19 crisis for educational inequality, London: Sutton Trust.