There is a concern that school closures – albeit necessary for public health reasons – will further widen the gap between children living in disadvantaged areas and their better off peers.
These are unprecedented times. With schools now closed until further notice children up and down the country are the latest casualty of Coronavirus, missing out on weeks of formal education. While this was a necessary decision from the Government to protect the public health of the country, it will have a profound impact everywhere in the UK. And the concern is that these weeks of home-schooling will hit children from disadvantaged backgrounds the hardest, further widening the education gap between them and their better off peers.
This is because, without adequate alternatives, school closures expose pupils to a ‘learning loss’. This is visible during the summer break: research from the US and Canada finds that each year, upon return to school after the summer holidays, pupils lose on average 25 per cent of the knowledge acquired in the previous academic year. This loss is larger for children from disadvantaged backgrounds as they have less access to learning opportunities, especially high-quality ones. Coronavirus-related school closures could have similar effects, with the ‘learning loss’ increasing for every week of missed school.
Concerningly, the stark geography of disadvantage in England means this ‘learning loss’ will not be felt evenly across the country. Cities in the North and Midlands have the largest proportions of disadvantaged pupils: for every 10 pupils in Liverpool, Hull and Birmingham, three are from disadvantaged backgrounds. In Aldershot and Reading, only one in ten are. London is a notable exception to this: despite its large share of disadvantaged pupils also has one of the lowest disadvantaged gaps in the country.
It doesn’t help that the places most exposed to ‘learning loss’ are also those that are weaker economically and more vulnerable to economic downturns. Cities like Liverpool, Hull and Birmingham have among the lowest employment rates across the country, and the highest shares of adults without basic qualifications. Adults living in these cities are already working in lower-skilled, lower-paid jobs and there is a real danger school closures will have a long-term impact on the life chances of younger generations too, only exacerbating the divide with the rest of the country.
Figure 1: Share of pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds at key stage 4, 2018
The good news is that there are a number of resources to structure home-learning and minimise ‘learning loss’. By using evidence from summer breaks, organisations such as the Education Endowment Foundation are already putting together toolkits that schools and families can use to support children’s learning – from text message reminders to creating interactive learning material.
The issue is now how to get pupils engaged. In a welcome move, the Government has pledged children on free school meals will be able to continue to receive their benefits. This is a vital first step, as it gives children the fuel they need to approach learning. Now, Government and schools must work together to identify and share best practice that makes home-schooling more effective and minimise the ‘learning loss’.
In a national crisis, especially one that affects the elderly the most, the educational needs of younger generations easily slip off the priority list. But the success of the country in the longer term will depend on the skills and knowledge these young people acquire. And while the Prime Minister’s favourite buzz word – ‘levelling-up’ – might have understandably disappeared from the news in recent weeks, the Government must not forget the likely geographical implications the virus will create and must act now to minimise them.