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.