On 20 March 2020, in response to the COVID-19 crisis, the UK Government enacted its decision to close schools across the country. A total of 25,000 schools were affected, with some 8 million children forced to work remotely, with the exception of key worker’s children.
This has caused a seismic shift in the way the education system functions, with lessons forced online in an effort to contain the virus.
Now, after three weeks of school closures, students are facing significant challenges to learning. Many are without access to the internet, or suitable technology for online learning. Others are stuck in cramped housing, without supermarket food vouchers.
In response to the impossible learning conditions that many disadvantaged students are being forced to endure, legal activists, children’s charities and think tanks are calling for government action.
Startling statistics released over the last few weeks have indicated that COVID-19 will significantly contribute to a widening of the education gap. Already, disadvantaged students are on average around 18 months behind other students in relation to academic achievement, by the time they hit the age of 16. Many fear that the crisis will further hinder their potential.
London-based think tank, The Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) revealed that as many as one million students in the UK do not have access to technology suitable for home learning. On top of this, it found that one third of those aged 16-24 reside in mobile-only homes.
Data sourced from Teacher Tapp which surveyed 6,000 teachers, found that they believe 10% of students do not have access to a device or the internet. Meanwhile, Teach First found that only 2% of teachers in severely disadvantaged areas believe their students have sufficient access to devices for home learning. While some households may have one electronic device with internet access, there may be multiple children of different ages residing in the home that require access to online material simultaneously.
Further to this, in the UK a total of 28% of pupils in state education are classified as disadvantaged students. It is concerning then, that more is not being done to prevent these children from being forced to work in cramped conditions with a lack of resources and support.
IPPR are subsequently calling for the introduction of an emergency support package in the form of a digital access fund, to ensure that online learning equality is achieved. It has also looked to mobile network providers to extend their free data so that children can use educational websites.
Speaking about the importance of providing children with access to education, Carry Roberts, IPPR’s Director said: “It’s especially important that policymakers do not overlook the impact of the measures on a generation of the UK’s children, who have least voice in what’s happening but will live with the consequences of our decisions for decades to come”.
There are also fears that many school children from disadvantaged homes do not currently have access to essentials. Those entitled to free school meals are likely to have been hit hard by remote schooling. Although the Department for Education promised supermarket vouchers for those who receive free school meals, there have been significant delays. Edenred, the provider selected by the government to supply the vouchers, is reportedly unable to cope with the demand.
Stephen Morales, Chief Executive of the Institute of School Business Leadership (ISBL) said: “We are at risk of not being able to feed these vulnerable children. Emotions are high. People are tired. Families are desperate. These things need to work”.
This is just another factor that will severely impact disadvantaged children and their ability to learn and thrive during this period.
Speaking about the Meals Voucher Scheme, Schools Business Manager Hilary Goldsmith, said:“The scheme has been rushed out. Not enough thought has been given to how the system will cope with a massive amount of use. It’s broken every step of the way”.
In response to the government’s lack of coordination in relation to remote learning, and the inequality stemming from this, The Good Law Project is threatening legal action against local authorities.
The case is crowdfunded, and argues that local authorities and the central government are violating S.19 of the Education Act 1996. This is supported by the Human Rights Act, the Equality Act and the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.
The group of legal activists propose that every student within the UK should have access to internet connectivity, to ensure that they have the ability to reach their potential while schooled at home. The government is duty bound by law to provide this.
Speaking about children’s right to learning, Jolyon Maugham QC, Director of The Good Law Project, said: “If teaching online is to replace that in classrooms, children must have access to laptops or tablets and to the internet”.
Exploring the impact of school closures, an international team of scientists recently published their findings in The Lancet Child & Adolescent Health journal. They wrote that the educational costs of school closures may outweigh the benefits, considering that closures will only prevent 2-4% of deaths.
Many have also warned of the impact that school closures will have on vulnerable children, including those diagnosed with autism. Speaking about this Dr. James Cusack, of the autism research charity Autistica said: “Many autistic children need increased support at this difficult time and may find the disruption to their routines especially hard. We know from parents of autistic children that the closure of schools has led to increased anxiety, particularly related to uncertainty”.
Many are subsequently calling for the re-opening of schools. This includes cabinet ministers, who are mounting pressure on the government to re-open schools in May. However, it appears that these recommendations are economically driven. Speaking to The Telegraph, a cabinet minister said: “We have got to make sure this economic downturn is V-shaped and not L-shaped. We should be beginning to release the things that can be released – so primary schools should re-open and so should non-essential shops”.
Speaking to BBC Radio 4’s Today programme Professor Paul Cosford, Emeritus Medical Director for Public Health England (PHE) agreed: “We do know that children are at very low risk of getting complications from this disease. The importance of children’s education, children being in school, is paramount. I could conceive of circumstances in which some of the restrictions are lifted sooner and some are lifted later”.
However COVID-19 works entirely differently to SARS. Each person who contracts the virus, will on average pass it on to 2.5 more people. Subsequently, The National Education Union (NEU) has raised its concerns that an early re-opening of schools could lead to an “increased [risk]” to teachers, students and their families. The government is yet to release a statement on the re-opening of schools.
Ultimately, the COVID-19 crisis has revealed serious systematic inequality within the education system. A decade of government austerity measures has contributed to a critical underfunding of state schools, which means that in times of crisis, schools are unable to provide adequate support for vulnerable and disadvantaged students. It has also shown that in order to close the education gap, the government must do more to ensure that disadvantaged students have access to educational resources through both the internet and appropriate learning devices.