We need to address the social inequalities in education better than before Covid-19

“We are a poor family living in a flat with no technology or space to work. There is no way I can get the children to do the work.”

Male in his 40s, living in Scotland, Demos’ Renew Normal survey

On 18 March, for the first time in British history, the government announced the nationwide shut-down of classrooms to all but the most vulnerable pupils and children of key workers. This meant that almost 8 million pupils in England had to continue their education at home.  

Most schools were caught unprepared for this pandemic. Closure has caused schools a myriad of challenges for pupils, from accessing food to getting used to the medium of online learning. We don’t know the scale of the problems caused by the pandemic on education yet, but we can’t afford to not take action now. 

Even in ‘normal times’ many children and young people from disadvantaged backgrounds do significantly worse in our education system compared to those from the least deprived communities. At the end of secondary school, the gap between disadvantaged pupils and their peers was still 19.3 months in 2016. The attainment gap – the term used to describe this issue – between pupils from the poorest and the richest households is well-documented. Every year, during the summer break, this gap widens. In the past ten years, through targeted action, the gap has been closing but at a very slow rate.

The Education Endowment Foundation suggests that the closure of schools could reverse all the progress made to close the gap since 2011 – primarily because disadvantaged kids are less likely to be learning at home. A report published in April 2020 by Sutton Trust stated that middle class pupils (30%) were almost twice as likely as working class pupils (16%) to be attending online classes everyday. 

As the quote above summarises well, having a space to study and the tools for online learning are fundamental for continuing education at home during lockdown. And we see that too many pupils lack these resources. When teachers were asked about their experience of lockdown by YouGov in May, almost half of the teachers (44%) said they know at least one pupil who hasn’t been able to access education because of tech issues. Only 11% of teachers say they haven’t had any pupils unable to connect. Inequalities in homeschooling are rooted in wider social inequalities. According to a study by the Institute for Fiscal Studies, parents with a university education are more confident in homeschooling their children. They found that disadvantaged pupils have less help and educational resources at home. 

Some steps have already been taken by the government. To close the education gap in England, a £1bn fund will be used to support teachers and the most disadvantaged pupils. They have also announced that disadvantaged students who receive support from a social worker in England will receive a free tablet or laptop computer and 4G based mobile devices.

These are steps in the right direction, but accessing technology isn’t the only issue disadvantaged pupils face. Since 15 June, secondary schools in England have been allowed to reopen for Years 10 and 12. However, when schools reopen in September, it will have been a 6 month break from education at school for many children. Therefore the announcement of the National Tutoring Programme to provide tuition assistance to disadvantaged pupils is promising. But if our recovery is about building back better, we must go beyond this and think about long-term meaningful changes that can be made to the education system.