Tackling the inequality of home learning

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By Dr Verity Jones, Senior Lecturer in Education

As we find ourselves in another lockdown, families across the country take on the task of home schooling yet again – and this time through the winter. The difficulties this poses for many families are becoming all too familiar as ongoing pressures of job insecurity, poverty and relationship breakdown strengthens its grip on our society plagued by COVID-19. When schools closed on 5 January, over 1 million children could look forward to nothing more than the societal inequalities they have been dealt becoming more deeply entrenched.

While inequalities come in many forms, the one I refer to here becomes ever more visible with lockdown: digital deprivation. We have seen from 2020 that any semblance of a normal school day is made possible through schools embracing technology, assisted by access to online educational resources.  While the first lockdown saw emails and posting of work on online platforms, teachers have adapted and many schools are now providing live lessons throughout the day. Those without access to stable internet connections and laptops, desktops, tablets or smart phones fall behind. In fact, the NFER reported that in July 2020 there was a 46% bigger learning gap between disadvantaged children and their peers compared to the previous year – with another six weeks of home schooling ahead this gap will only get bigger.

Since September, schools have been drawing on their own budgets and government funding to supply hardware and bolster tutoring programmes in targeted areas of deprivation.  There have been steps made to invest in devices and resources for the children who need them. But, with this new lockdown it is plain to see that the tutoring programme is in tatters and distribution of tech is too slow and doesn’t fulfil the need. Where tech is available, money for food and heating may well be the priority over electricity and data usage for school work. 

The government have identified children without digital connectivity as ‘vulnerable’. In theory this means they are able to take a school place. But just four days into school closures there were already reports of schools being unable to support these numbers safely. The result? More children falling behind. More children being digitally isolated.

What’s the solution?

Hardware needs to be quickly and accurately distributed to those without. All mobile data providers need to apply ‘zero rating’ data use on educational sites to eliminate financial burden. One parent from disadvantaged homes needs to be 100% furloughed in order to support their children’s learning and an online education allowance (similar to a heating allowance) provided to financially support families with increased heating and electricity costs.

Teachers know that the previous lockdowns have created gaps in children’s knowledge and skills – coherent guidance is now needed on how the curriculum should be adjusted, taking into account local contexts. Reform is essential in order to rebalance teacher workload and ensure that at this time of crises we have the retention of our teachers which is crucial for learners in order to ensure consistency.

Unfortunately this will not, in all likelihood, be the last time children will have to be taught from home. As such we also need to ensure that our teachers are trained thoroughly in developing and implementing online learning. These are different skills to those needed within the familiar physical space of a classroom, and require more than just talking to a powerpoint slideshow. Already at UWE Bristol we are providing focussed sessions on online pedagogies for our trainee teachers to support them in their practice. While such futureproofing is essential for our new teachers, experienced teachers already in schools also require similar ongoing training opportunities. 

COVID-19 continues to show and accelerate the reality of inequality in the UK.

Our most disadvantaged need a clear and supported educational strategy to ensure that the gap in achievement is not increased. We know that reopening schools as soon as possible is not the answer. It needs to be safe for both pupils and staff. In the meantime, we need to do all we can to disrupt the disadvantage. Our education system needs to be right for all, not just for some. It is failing and will continue to fail if change does not occur. 

Governments must intervene now to support students; universities cannot do this alone

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By Professor Steve West, Vice-Chancellor at UWE Bristol

The growing calls across the country to refund tuition fees are impossible to ignore. What’s more, they are understandable. Whilst students have still been able to meet learning outcomes, progress and graduate, thanks to the hard work and dedication of staff across the higher education sector, there can be no question that they have faced significant upheaval over the last 10 months.

We now need the Government to work with us to send a powerful signal to students and society that they too are prepared to support a generation of graduates who face a uniquely challenging jobs market, and that they will tackle the growing inequalities created by Covid-19.

The Minister unfortunately fell short of this in the ‘STUDENT MESSAGE’ shared on Twitter, which offered very little in the way of meaningful reassurance for learners and showed heavy disdain for universities. Having worked tirelessly to protect the student experience and provide high-quality teaching throughout the pandemic, universities were accused of not working hard enough to ‘maintain the quality, quantity and accessibility of tuition’ and told that university fees are a matter for universities alone.

There is no denying that even with the continued dedication of university staff, students are having a very different university experience from what they might have expected. Our staff have dug deep to support our students, demonstrating the levels of sustained innovation and commitment needed to match a national crisis. Learning outcomes are being assessed and achieved against degree and professional standards. But students are rightly asking for more – they are asking for support for their futures that universities cannot provide alone.  

Universities have already invested heavily to support students through these difficult times; providing additional IT and digital resources, hardship funds and expanding wellbeing support. This has all been unbudgeted and falls outside of normal expenditure by many millions of pounds per institution.

In addition, universities have faced increased costs to create Covid-secure campuses and environments, and many universities, like us, have spent millions refunding students for the university-owned accommodation that was left empty in the 2020 and 2021 lockdowns.

But even with these interventions, most students are still significantly disadvantaged and in danger of being forced to drop out of their studies. They have lost access to vital part-time work and much needed income that allows them to survive and stay in education. Many are falling deeper into debt which is impacting on their mental health. The vast majority of students who are in private accommodation are still paying rent to their landlords for unused accommodation, just as they did in 2020. Universities have increased hardship funds but they are being overwhelmed by the demand.

The Government points to £20m additional funding and the repurposing of £265m exisiting funding designed to be used on other prioirties, now made available to support those most in need of support in these exceptional circumstances. For my own University, with around 30,000 students, the new funding delivered around £9 per head. Whilst welcome, this didn’t address the significant challenges the student population is facing, as have already been recognised in Wales and Scotland.

Throughout this crisis, universities have received minimal financial support from the Government and have only been able to furlough very few staff due to universities being largely publicly funded.

This is despite the much broader role Universities have also continued to play in their communities, with many volunteering crucial support to the NHS – stepping up to offer vital facilities, capacity and equipment, and frontline staff and training.

With university finances increasingly fragile I call on the Government to play their part.

What is the ask?

It is clear that the best and fairest way to support this generation is by reducing their student debt. This would demonstrate the Government’s ongoing commitment to the graduates of the Covid-19 era, making their repayments more affordable as the UK economy starts its long recovery from the effects of Covid-19.

I recognise that there have been many calls on government support during the pandemic. All parts of society have been hit. We need fair ways of helping all students disadvantaged by this crisis. Action needs to be taken to:

  1. Reduce and reprofile student loan debts, by reducing the interest rates being accrued on these loans during the pandemic disruption.
  2. Increase maintenance grants and hardship funds for the most disadvantaged students to protect their futures.  
  3. Provide additional funding for universities to support mental health and wellbeing and to maximise the summer experience to add as much value as possible during the summer term.

Undergraduate university teaching is funded, in the main, through the Treasury via the Student Loan Company, with 25% of students taking out a loan expected to repay in full. These adjustments can therefore only be made by Government itself. Whilst there may be a need to review the way in which Higher Education and Further Education is funded in the future, that debate is still to come. For now, universities are doing what they can with their limited resources, but the Government has a crucial role to play to ensure equitable solutions are in place which will catch all students at risk of slipping through the system.

Let’s not fail a generation. Universities and our graduates will play a vital role in the post-pandemic recovery – providing the skilled workforce, innovation and creativity this country needs to build back better and stronger. Together we must protect their future.