During the COVID-19 pandemic, the Greater Manchester Combined Authority created the Pathways to Success strategy to support schools to deliver education to vulnerable children during lockdown. In this blog, Dr Paul Armstrong, Dr Stephen Rayner and Emeritus Professor Mel Ainscow reflect on the strategy and explore the opportunities for schools to implement aspects of it into their everyday activities.
- The COVID-19 pandemic greatly affected education and disproportionately impacted young people from disadvantaged communities.
- The Pathways to Success scheme brought schools together to share ideas and practice around supporting vulnerable children.
- Moving forward, teachers need to be better trained to use digital technology, policymakers need to support educators to deliver blended learning, and schools should continue to work together to develop knowledge-sharing networks.
The impact on education globally has been one of the defining features of the COVID-19 pandemic. In the spring of 2020, during the first wave, it was estimated that over 1.6 billion young people were affected by full or partial school closures across the world. As a consequence, this crisis has exacerbated pre-existing social and educational inequalities, particularly amongst children and young people from disadvantaged communities. The big question is: how should this challenge be addressed?
Pathways to success
During COVID-19 lockdowns in the UK, teachers have had to develop and apply a range of sophisticated digital learning skills, in order to adapt their pedagogy and their ways of engaging pupils with learning. Even for families with access to devices and sufficient physical space for learning to take place, this shift has been a challenge. For families without such provision – those on the wrong side of the digital divide – the consequences are far more significant because the pandemic is reducing the equalising role that the time children normally spend in school may have on their learning. In response to these challenges, the Greater Manchester Combined Authority introduced an educational recovery strategy, Pathways to Success, to support schools across the region. The strategy aimed to ensure support for all children and young people, paying particular attention to those who are vulnerable to underachievement, marginalisation and exclusion. This involved action learning trios, made up of schools that serve broadly similar communities from different local authorities and trusts, coming together to share experiences and ideas.
Moving knowledge around
To date, almost 80 Greater Manchester schools have participated in this process. Working in trios of schools, practitioners have held at least one online meeting and then submitted a summary of what had emerged from their discussions. This has led to a rich resource of information relating to how schools have responded to the current crisis and the ongoing challenges they face, and we have been analysing this data.
So, for example, some schools have put in place a range of support structures for home learning including training children on how to access online lessons via platforms such as Google Classroom, Microsoft Teams and Purple Mash. Equipment and resources have also been provided for pupils to enable them to access these resources. A number of schools have also set up regular contact between teachers and pupils to ensure and support engagement with online learning provision.
Support for parents with online learning has been a key priority for schools. Some report providing step-by-step guides on how to use online learning platforms. Telephone support has also been provided for parents who are struggling with the technology and hardware, including laptops. And WiFi routers and dongles have been loaned to families without such equipment. Many schools have also adopted a blended-learning approach, combining online platforms with paper-based materials, an approach that seems to be favoured by families.
There are differences between primary schools and secondary schools in how they have responded. Each phase can learn from the other. Secondary schools have referred to the structures that they already had in place; for example, non-teaching progress tutors, learning mentors and IT technicians. Primary schools have had to be more agile and flexible, but the strong relationship between the children and their class teacher has meant that the communication has been more personal and consistent.
Of course, schools have had to tailor expectations as to what can be achieved, especially with parents who are working from home. Where possible, pupils’ participation is monitored, and any lack of engagement is followed up, but this is often a time-consuming process and not always entirely impactful in respect of pupils’ learning. Moreover, despite the best efforts of our educators to bridge the digital divide, many low-income families have limited (or no) access to appropriate technology and equipment to fully engage in online learning. Indeed, recent research suggests that 18% of families with an annual income below £13,500 do not have access to a desktop or laptop computer while only 50% of households earning between £6,000 and 10,000 have any internet access at all.
The emerging findings from the Pathways to Success research highlight the many ways in which schools have been looking to support the digital competencies of their staff members in adapting to the online and blended learning environment. Indications suggest that this has been a challenge and that there is also a ‘digital divide’ for teachers: between those who are skilled in, and comfortable with, the new technologies and those who are not.
Bridging the divide
Prompted by these circumstances, a case has been made that the time has come for a permanent digital transformation in the United Kingdom to improve young peoples’ learning with digital technology, address the digital divide that is intensifying existing educational inequalities and explore the unique innovative potential of digital technology for education.
To build on this, we would argue that bridging the digital divide between teachers is also a key priority to ensure they are appropriately trained and confident in developing digital pedagogies. For example, newly qualified teachers are usually surrounded by experienced colleagues, many of them only too willing to give advice and support. The pandemic has not only cancelled out the advantage of teaching experience, it may even have reversed the relationship in some cases. There are, therefore, policy implications for teachers’ professional development, and not only for the initial teacher education phase.
Many schools have grappled with providing face-to-face and online learning simultaneously. This may continue for some time and may even become a more permanent feature of the school system. We would therefore suggest policymakers turn their attention to allowing and supporting schools to develop a blended learning offer.
These experiences in Greater Manchester illustrate the potential that exists in schools to address the new challenges that have emerged as a result of the pandemic. They suggest that the starting point for improvement should be with creating pathways for moving this knowledge around. For this to happen we need locally coordinated partnerships of the sort that exists in Greater Manchester. This thinking is different to the current emphasis on top-down policies delivered from Westminster.
Nevertheless, efforts to bridge the digital divide between young people will not be enough to address the deeper-rooted societal inequalities that prevail and that have probably been increased by the pandemic. Addressing those inequalities will require bolder and more radical solutions from across the political spectrum than we have witnessed to date.
This article was originally published in On Digital Inequalities, a collection of thought leadership pieces on how to address the inequalities we are seeing in the digital space, published by Policy@Manchester.
Policy@Manchester aims to impact lives globally, nationally and locally through influencing and challenging policymakers with robust research-informed evidence and ideas. Visit our website to find out more, and sign up to our newsletter to keep up to date with our latest news.