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The children left behind in a world of distance learning

Boy doing his homework

The continued closure of schools may have come as a relief to teaching staff concerned about the health risks posed by a premature return to normal. But the prolonged period of shutdown brings with it other worries.

Children who were already disadvantaged – either by social or economic deprivation, disability or other special needs – are being further left behind by the shift to online learning.

Some 10 million school-aged children in the UK are now confined to their homes, their education significantly disrupted by what has already been four weeks outside the classroom. And, with little likelihood of schools being fully open before September – a phased reopening is now expected in June – teachers, charities and education experts are pointing to deepening educational and social inequality.

The government has now announced a scheme to supply free laptops to disadvantaged children, but how will it work – and does it go far enough? 

Inequalities – the global picture

A global report on social mobility in 2018 found that poorer students in the UK were almost three years behind their wealthier peers academically. What’s more, this achievement gap is established as early as age 10.

The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) has gone on to produce advice on how schools worldwide should be responding to the current situation. Andreas Schleicher, OECD’s director of education and skills, says, “This crisis is exposing and amplifying the inequalities in our education systems. It is likely that those without access to digital resources, without the right parental support, and without the resilience and capabilities to learn on their own will be left even further behind.”

Cut off

Under the current lockdown, children no longer have direct access to their teachers, their peers or their school’s facilities. They may have no timetable or rules. Most importantly, some will have little or no human interaction while they’re working. They may well be dependent on online learning and their parents – who in some cases may be too busy, or anxious or preoccupied, or perhaps just unable, to offer support.

It is the situation at home that plays an important part in determining the outcome. Research published by Ofcom in 2018 suggested that as many as a million children and their families in the UK do not have adequate access to a device or internet connectivity. These children are the ones that risk being left behind.

Education is a right

The Education Act says that every child has the right to a suitable education, which is why the Good Law Project has campaigned for the right of every school-age child being taught remotely to a laptop or tablet and to an internet connection in their home.

They say, “Many children from lower income families share a laptop with siblings and working parents, or live in a mobile phone-only household, or simply don’t have internet access. It’s unthinkable that these children, already the most educationally disadvantaged, should fall further behind as schools remain closed.”

Human Rights Watch also sounds alarm bells about education rights in this time of lockdown, advising governments to take action to counter the “disproportionate effects on children who already experience barriers to education, or who are marginalised for various reasons - including those affected by their location, their family situation, and other inequalities.”

The government response

In response to these growing concerns, the Department for Education announced last week that laptops would be provided for some disadvantaged students, who are preparing for their GCSEs, for children with a social worker or those leaving care. There is also the offer of 4G routers to help families connect to the internet.

Earlier today, Gavin Williamson, the Education Secretary, announced futher details about the scheme: a total of 200,000 laptops will be delivered, with the first arriving at the end of May. Williamson also said he had held talks with the BBC about putting schools programmes on television as a way to help those without internet connections.

This certainly seems like a step in the right direction towards bridging the digital divide. But how is this news being received?

The impact of this initiative

Laurence Guinness, CEO of The Childhood Trust, which works to alleviate the impact of child poverty in London, says that the provision of laptops is “a massive opportunity for children, at the very least in helping them feel connected to their peers. Of course it’s a vital initiative but it’s a sorry truth that it’s taken a global pandemic to reveal what are essentially basic needs. Every child should have full access to the internet and be able to move their education forward.”

Working with families living in some of the most deprived circumstances, he is, however, understandably reluctant to see this as a complete solution to what he describes as a complex problem. “It’s a sticking plaster,” he says. “What’s really needed is proper housing and decent universal credit. Poverty degrades children’s lives and many families are living in squalid conditions.”

He cites the example of a working mother living in one room with a four-year-old and six-year-old child who has to use the loo seat as a desk: “These are not optimal conditions for living, let alone education. And now these children are literally trapped without the relief school offered to escape these conditions. School provides a level playing field where everyone is equal. But that’s not the case out in the real world, so sharp divisions are more obvious now.”

A widening gap

Teachers, who are trying to be as inclusive as possible in the current situation, acknowledge the challenge of engaging every student. They note that the students who are least likely to submit work online and keep in touch are the very ones who struggle in class and need plenty of support.

Meanwhile, those who benefit from a spacious home and garden, with parents willing and able to encourage and oversee their school work, are flourishing. They are developing their independent study skills, becoming more resourceful, even doing extension work or devising creative projects.

Louise, head of maths at a London secondary school with a high proportion of children from poor socio-economic backgrounds, says that the attainment gap is already stark and the shutdown is further highlighting the extremes. “Only a tiny proportion of the kids are taking independent learning seriously and sending me amazing work, which I can then give direct feedback and ideas for taking it further. Perhaps a third are doing what’s expected without pushing themselves. But about 50% are almost impossible to reach. They may sign in and attempt a few questions, but that’s it.”

She agrees that digital inequality is a key factor in this: “I’m now setting less work, to avoid overloading them and perhaps causing even more stress in their lives. And I’m limiting the work to 20-30 minute tasks. Sometimes the only device in a household is a mobile which, maybe, mum takes to work during the day. And then several kids have to fight over that tiny screen in the evening to go on Google Classroom.”

Appreciating that families are, in many cases, dealing with huge amounts of anxiety about money, jobs, sick relatives and a lack of space, Louise is careful not to add to the pressures by too many phone calls home. “We’re trying to build relationships by each child being allocated one teacher. Many of these families don’t even have basic resources like paper or notebooks or protractors. They may share bedrooms and have no physical space to work. Or have a screaming baby to deal with.”

A complex picture

What difference will the offer of laptops make? “We’ve already distributed about 50 Chromebooks before the government’s offer, but the impact will be limited,” says Louise. “The difficulties some families are facing are so much greater than a lack of laptops. And the students who are disengaged are the ones who you can’t pin down even in school.”

Richard, the designated safeguarding lead at a Somerset comprehensive, agrees that the problem extends beyond the lack of technology to include parental support, living conditions, independence and motivation. But the senior leadership team recognised early on that the digital divide was an issue and would discriminate against those already facing barriers to learning. So they addressed this by distributing paper versions of the work set.

“We’ve got mountains of booklets all laid out in the office and the franking machine has been pretty busy. We’ve also handed out quite a few laptops as quickly as we can and we now have someone making laptops by rebuilding old and broken ones.”

How will the government’s scheme work?

The Department for Education has said it will be the responsibility of schools to decide who qualifies for a laptop and internet connection. But Richard, like other teachers, worries about how those decisions will be made.

He points out that it isn’t as simple as checking a register: “In Year 10 alone we probably have about 80 students who have free school meals or social care intervention. But then there are many families who, for example, don’t qualify for free school meals and are in need financially. And there are other students we think are vulnerable in terms of safeguarding, but they don’t meet official thresholds.”

Averting a crisis

Amid this uncertainty, schools continue in their efforts to avert a crisis in education which is likely to hit the most disadvantaged the hardest. They are all too aware of the complex reasons certain groups of children are not engaging with online teaching and are working hard to find solutions, whether that’s providing a laptop, a hard copy of the work or regular contact with the family.

It’s certain that the effects of the shutdown will be felt by all, but can schools bridge the widening gap between advantaged and disadvantaged children and help them recover this lost time?

Images: leszekglasner/stock.adobe.com, antic/stock.adobe.com


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