COVID-19 and learning gaps between children in the UK

COVID-19 has severely impacted the lives of disadvantaged pupils in the UK. Many are back at school this month, but plans for all primary schools to reopen before the summer have been scrapped. The UK’s high infection rate of COVID-19 means that schools must continue to operate with social distancing measures, and so most children continue to learn at home. While many expressed disappointment in the government’s initial plans to reopen schools, critics, such as the chief inspector of schools, Amanda Speilman, have pivoted to argue that they should not close at all over the summer. Regardless of the rights or wrongs of these two positions, it is obvious that there has been a disorganised decision making process, with plans failing to be discussed with unions, school leaders and teachers. A plan for schools moving forward that invests in economically disadvantaged children is necessary. 

The ability of schools to reduce disadvantage is particularly important for less affluent children, who show lower levels of school readiness and are less likely to benefit from enriching home environments. The longer schools are closed, the greater the risk of educational damage as responsibilities are transferred to parents. Like professional caregivers, parents should be involved in engaging children’s cognitive processes but there is a clear link between the resources parents have and the home environments they are able to provide.

The French sociologist and philosopher Pierre Bourdiau offers some insights here through his theory of ‘capitals’, i.e. the resources an individual has access to. While schools provide ‘cultural capital in advancing educational attainment, some children remain at an advantage where they are able to access other forms of capital at home: beneficial social networks (‘social capital’) and financial resources (‘economic capital’). Capitals are also mutually reinforcing, so a child with access to ‘economic capital’ at home, for example, will be more likely to adapt to the school environment when they return in September. Schools could also play another role in reproducing advantage: the introduction of a grading system based on teacher assessment will likely underestimate the academic potential of poorer pupils, particularly those who leave their revision until the last minute. Relying on institutional providers to challenge disadvantage alone therefore involves overlooking the resources available to some families.

There are children who have nowhere to work at home, or have little to no online access to allow virtual study and lessons. The Department for Education has been unable to deliver enough resources such as iPads and laptops to aid learning, and gaps of school readiness and performance between children can be expected to widen. The role of institutional arrangements have always been limited, as they are undermined by what happens within households, but this is now amplified by the fact that most children are learning at home. Material deprivation within families needs to be addressed, and quality provision directed to disadvantaged children when they return to school or educational disadvantages will prevail.

 

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