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. 

Learning from lockdown: how teachers adapted to online learning

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By Dr Jane Carter, Senior Lecturer in Primary Education

Learning to read is perhaps the most important thing we will learn to do in our primary education. There is a huge amount of evidence that identifies that being able to read impacts on our future social, emotional, economic and academic success. Not only that, a failure to learn to read comes at a great cost: to the economy; to public health; to our diet and safety and in terms of democratic and community engagement.

When Covid struck and schools closed their doors and migrated to online learning, there was a deep and real concern for the most vulnerable learners: those who had been identified as needing additional support and specialist intervention; and those with few books at home and parents lacking the confidence and resources to help their children.

I have been awarded a small grant from the British Educational Research Association to study the impact of coronavirus on one-to-one reading for children in need of additional support, with a focus on the innovations and challenges experienced by teachers.

Some Bristol schools have specialist reading teachers who implement the Reading Recovery intervention programme for the lowest attaining children in Year 1 (aged 6) and these teachers also use their skills and knowledge to support reading programmes for children throughout the primary school age groups. It is these teachers who leapt into action when Covid struck and who are the focus of my study.

The national lockdown saw many schools and teachers forced to adapt to online learning. Many were innovative in their practice and in numerous cases, online learning was a success. One such school is Glenfrome Primary in Bristol which has worked tirelessly to support young readers. The head teacher has worked alongside the school’s Reading Recovery Teacher to ensure the children who were receiving one-to-one support before lockdown were able to continue their one-to-one reading online. You may think that this is an easy task, but just take a moment to think about the hurdles that need to be overcome:

  1. Do these young readers (6 years old) have access to appropriate IT hardware to engage in online learning?
  2. With the child at home and the reading recovery teacher at home, what are the safeguarding implications of one-to-one online tutoring?
  3. Are there GDPR issues?
  4. How can a book be shared online – both the reading recovery teacher and the child need to be able to see the text?
  5. How do you engage a child on screen with reading when the child is already reluctant to read, finds reading difficult and is often easily distracted?

These were just a few of the hurdles that the Reading Recovery Teacher navigated. She also developed banks of scanned books to use; enabled parents to learn more about supporting their child with reading (helping also with the IT issues and addressing some of the safeguarding concerns); working with publishers around copyright and adapting sessions to address the engagement of each child.

Lockdown uncovered numerous challenges and barriers with online learning, but it also proved how effective it can be. In the case of Glenfrome School, the children made accelerated progress with their reading during this time. The one-to-one reading was also a lifeline for some families, particularly those that were feeling isolated and alone during lockdown.

By carrying out my research study, I hope to uncover the practical approaches to supporting the teaching of reading online and learn how teachers, parents and pupils overcame barriers during the national lockdown to continue learning. With an increasing number of local lockdowns already taking place around the UK, this study is key to identifying how best to support pupils with their reading online. The findings will help schools and teachers to support children with their learning in future lockdown scenarios or in the event of children and households isolating, class closures or full school closures.

With a new academic year underway, we know that education will continue to be affected by the pandemic for the foreseeable future. It is crucial that we, as educators, continue to adapt our approach and overcome challenges. And, just as we ensure that our children continue to learn, we too must learn from the lessons of lockdown.