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It will take more than laptops and 4g routers to redress the educational inequalities

Updated: Jun 21, 2021

Hussein Hussein - CAPE Mentors - Wednesday 13th May 2020

The British education system has always been ill equipped to support ethnic minority children and those from poorer backgrounds. As we adapt to life in lockdown, these students, whose families are most likely to bear the brunt of this crisis, have experienced an exacerbation of their educational disadvantage thanks to changes induced by COVID-19.

To some extent, this is understandable. Closing schools at a few days’ notice created a necessity for haste: school leaders and policymakers had little time to redesign education for 10 million school aged children.

Yet, during lockdown, schools have been as busy as ever with teachers providing online learning through a variety of platforms. Though well meaning, this transition to distance learning has failed to accommodate the 34% of children in the UK who grow up in poverty, often without access to the internet or a home environment conducive to learning. Instead, it has served to further intensify educational inequities present prior to the pandemic. Let me explain why.

Schools’ shift to distance learning failed to account for the digital divide.

To minimise disruption to academic progress, schools have worked tirelessly to ensure all children have access to work during lockdown: teachers have delivered lessons virtually, homework has been set via online platforms and in some cases paper-based work packs have been sent home for students to complete.

As politicians dither over school return dates, distance learning has grown in importance, becoming more than just a means to fill a short disruption. It has become a new, if temporary, normal. To ensure these changes do not widen an already expansive education gap, we must understand their pitfalls in order to better mould the offering to reach all, rather than most.

While distance learning certainly proves logical given the current state of affairs, its rushed implementation failed to consider the 700,000 secondary aged pupils without access to the internet via a tablet, laptop or desktop computer. Once this shortfall was realised, Education Secretary Gavin Williamson announced that disadvantaged children would receive free laptops or tablets and 4g routers to ensure they can access online learning. Particularly ironic, given Boris Johnson’s assertion, months before the pandemic, that free broadband for all was nothing more than an expensive ‘crackpot scheme’.

Home, in many cases, is not a place of learning.

Although tackling the digital divide would undoubtedly improve access to education while schools are closed, more needs to be done. The idyllic image of children working from home, at a table, with a laptop, smooth reliable internet, healthy snacks and a well-educated parent or adult nearby neglects the reality faced by many children today and the breadth of roles teachers fill to propel students to success.

Schools provide children with space. Space to learn and develop. This space is more vital for some than others, as the idea of a perfect learning environment within the home is a simple fantasy for many families in Britain.

When I was a child, sitting my GCSEs, I lived in a three-bedroom council flat with nine people. My mum, an extremely caring lady, took in a family in need of support. Back then, I did not have a bedroom of my own, if I remember correctly I slept in my mother’s room, but this did not bother me as most of my time at home was spent playing videogames with my brothers in the front room, which also doubled up as a bedroom. When it came to revision, I would revise in the corridor with a textbook, some paper to write on and a football to do kick-ups with whilst I recalled key facts I had learned. Maybe this was bearable then as I had school in the day to break it up. Though I did not know it at the time, I loved school. It made a world I could not see visible. I know the proposition of working from home back then would not have been an appealing one, even though I did have access to a computer and internet. School, I realise now, offers many children the space they often need to learn.

Teachers provide added value that Zoom and Google Classroom cannot replicate.

As a former free school meals student, I can attest to the value added by teachers beyond the classroom. For me, their encouragement was priceless, as people where I grew up, between Hackney and Islington, tended not to take their studies seriously. I went to school out of borough with the children of MPs, Lords and actors. Though I did not have access to the same level of support outside of school as they did, I managed to keep pace with them thanks to the extra time my teachers afforded me. Support that extended beyond any bullet-point you could find in their job description. As a young man, they provided me with the intangible tools I needed to achieve success. More than a laptop, internet connection or online lesson ever could.

The diverse ways in which teachers enrich the minds of children up and down the country has been lost amidst the chaos of COVID-19. It is reductive to believe teachers can replicate their work via online platforms, such as Zoom, without detriment to underprivileged students. Sadly, these children, often with aspirations beyond the realities they were born into, stand to lose the most.

How can schools better support disadvantaged students during lockdown?

Of course, schools currently have no option other than remote learning. However, polls suggest only one third of students have taken part in online lessons and that private school children are more than twice as likely to receive daily support than their state educated peers. In order to reduce an already vast gap in attainment between richer and poorer pupils, it is important we do all we can now to better engage disadvantaged children.

As things stand, schools are still open for children the government have labelled ‘vulnerable’. A plan that was only ever plausible in theory.

Just imagine the conversations between these children and their peers during lockdown.

“Are you coming online?”

“Na, I’ve got school.”

“Schools closed though.”

“Not for me, I’m vulnerable.”

Labelling children ‘vulnerable’ was unlikely to ever encourage attendance. Since lockdown, only 5% of these children have attended school.

I suggest doing the following two things to achieve better outcomes whilst schools are closed.

1. Provide on-site support to more children from disadvantaged backgrounds

Rather than only being open to vulnerable students and children of keyworkers, schools should open their doors to a broader range of young people who would also benefit from support during this time of crisis. Especially as those groups, who have been welcomed on-site, are overwhelmingly not making use of this service. The Department for Education (DfE) revealed that only 1% of pupils attended school during lockdown in April.

Providing more children from disadvantaged backgrounds with a refuge away from home and greater access to the resources and support they need to continue their studies can only serve to reduce the educational inequality we have seen since lockdown commenced. Increased contact between children and their teachers would also provide many with an opportunity to discuss concerns they are likely to have regarding their futures, particularly given the growing levels of uncertainty surrounding exam grades and post-16 destinations.

Although I appreciate this may prove difficult given social distancing guidelines, it is not an impossible prospect. A classroom designed for thirty children should be able to safely accommodate small groups of three to four. Though it is fair to say some would turn down the offer, I am confident many would welcome such an opportunity. Furthermore, opening school doors to a broader pool of children may stimulate positive peer pressure and encourage greater engagement than we have seen thus far.

2. Establish lines of communication with the wider network of children’s services around students.

Despite the best efforts and intentions of teachers, there will be many cases across the UK where children choose not to engage with school until their doors re-open again. Creative solutions need to be found to ensure these children are effectively safeguarded.

As an example of this disengagement, all the children I support can attend school, yet none have. This, however, has not prevented their schools from keeping in regular contact to monitor their wellbeing. Every student I support has an email thread with all professionals working with them copied in, allowing staff within these schools to remain informed about children they have not seen since they shut their doors in March. This is extremely important given the strong association between a families’ socio-economic circumstances and the chances that their children will experience abuse or neglect. Child abuse is more prevalent than common sense suggests. Local authorities conduct what are known as Section 47 inspections when they identify there is reasonable cause to suspect a child is suffering. Last year, they conducted 167 inspections per 10,000 children, equating to roughly 15 children per secondary school.

All staff within schools receive training to help them effectively safeguard their students. While school doors are closed, children are less visible and increasingly prone to abuse. During this period of reduced contact, schools need to establish frequent contact with all professionals around their children, to best ensure their safeguarding duties are fulfilled.

Though relatively simple, establishing solid lines of communication with the wider network of children’s services around students will allow schools to identify incidences where children have spent prolonged periods without any reported contact. This, in turn, will allow professionals to intervene early and keep all children safe while school doors remain closed.

I believe that these small changes will enable us to both better educate and safeguard children from disadvantaged backgrounds by guaranteeing they have the best chance of partaking in education and ensuring they are accounted for.

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