There is no denying that we live in an unequal society. Race, ethnicity, gender, socioeconomic background and many other characteristics affect outcomes in life. And a lot of this starts at school.
School closures as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic have affected roughly 10m children and young people across the UK. This has placed responsibility for learning on parents and carers, and interrupted learning. Researchers and thinkers believe this will slow the progress of an entire generation and widen gender, socio-economic, and ethnic inequalities. Long-term consequences of inequalities include health outcomes and labour market impact, resulting in reduced social mobility, increased healthcare costs, and lower economic productivity.
Home learning didn’t work for everyone
It is estimated that around a third of learning days and output were lost during the pandemic and lockdowns. The curriculum was not covered in full as a result of fewer learning hours and decreased engagement. Not all home environments are equal. Depending on the working status of parents, access to digital resources, time available, and even basic things such as heating, lighting and food can affect educational outcomes. Those pupils whose parents were able to spend time with them learning will have fared better than children of parents who were at work.
In June 2020, the Educational Endowment Fund predicted that school closures were likely to reverse progress made to close the gap in attainment between pupils from lower and higher income backgrounds over the last decade. They estimated it could widen by 36% to 12.5 months.
Many students from lower socio economic backgrounds did not have access to the digital devices needed for home learning set ups. The Bridge Renewal Trust works with schools in the local area of Haringey, London. They found that only 4% of pupils on one estate were engaging with homeschooling – when they gave them all laptops it increased to 96%. Polling by Teacher Tapp found that teachers in schools with more students eligible for free school meals were the least likely to say they could broadcast a lesson for their class to access. 60% of teachers at private schools said they felt prepared to teach online, compared to 40% at state.
This all intersects with race and gender. We know that those from Black and ethnic communities, and women, are disproportionately represented in the lower socioeconomic brackets of society. They are more likely to be from families where parents and carers multiple jobs on lower wages and not have access to some of the basic resources needed for stronger educational attainment
Food and fuel
The number of children eligible for free school meals increased to 1.6 million in 2021, up from 1.4 million in 2020. Fuel and energy is essential for growing brains and learning, and for some children is their only proper meal of the day. Schools closing meant that they no longer had access to this. As a result their growth and learning is impacted by not having proper nourishment.
Covid-19 has highlighted and exacerbated the inequality in our country. After such a period of disruption, young people need not only academic help, but mental health and pastoral support. Children are returning to school needing not just academic help but a wide range of pastoral, mental health and wellbeing support too.
For many of us, life is returning to ‘normal.’ But the education inequalities that already exist in society have been deepened by the pandemic. We hope to see government policy and plans offering support. But we know that great teachers are there to do what they can to support the young people they educate.