COVID-19 exposed the disadvantage suffered by children and young people in our most deprived areas, disproportionately in the north of England. In this blog, Professor Caroline Bond and Professor Pamela Qualter discuss how these problems, and the accumulating evidence, demand a policy response. This is an adaptation of an article they co-authored for the Child of the North report, with colleagues from the Universities of Leeds, Durham, Lancaster, and Bradford.
- During the first lockdown, 14% of children in schools in the north received four or more pieces of offline schoolwork per day, compared with the country-wide average of 20%.
- Digital inequalities affect all children, not just the most deprived.
- Schools must be at the centre of recovery plans for children and young people, with resources directed to the most deprived areas.
Inequalities within the educational system
The pandemic revealed the critically important role played by education systems in supporting the needs of children and young people. Children in the north are at greater risk of being born into unhealthy environments, while schools in the north have a disproportionate number of children in poverty, with poor levels of development on entering school, vulnerable children, children who have suffered from neglect and abuse, and children in local authority care. COVID-19 hit the most deprived areas hardest – meaning children and young people in the north were disproportionately affected.
Past research highlighted persistent and deepening inequalities during the COVID-19 pandemic, with statistics detailing the 17% higher mortality rate in the north, an average of 41 additional days in lockdown, falling wages (versus rises in other areas), higher unemployment rates, and decreased parental and child wellbeing. Urban schools serving the most deprived communities had the most interrupted in-school learning time, and limited resources for delivering teaching during the pandemic.
The digital divide
Digital inequalities were also exposed by the pandemic. Schools in deprived areas were less likely to have the necessary digital technology for remote teaching, and their teachers were less likely to be trained in the use of online platforms. Around two thirds of teachers had little or no previous experience with online teaching, and only 44% reported being well supported. Only 3% of teachers in the poorest schools hosted an online class, and only 4% had audio or video calls with a student. While 60% of private schools in the most affluent areas already had an online platform, the figure was 23% for the most deprived schools.
The implications of the shift to remote education were revealed in the ‘Born in Bradford’ study. Children of South Asian heritage were more likely to have access to computer equipment ‘only some of the time’ (25%) compared to children from White British (19%) and other ethnic groups (20%). This pattern was reflected in access to books (17% of children of South Asian heritage had access ‘only some of the time’ compared to 5% White British children). Some schools made the decision to avoid online resources for all children because many were unable to access digital technologies. Inequalities are bad for everyone – with less disadvantaged children affected by their classmates’ lack of access to digital resources. There were regional differences in the amount of offline schoolwork provided to students, with only 14% of children in schools within the north receiving four or more pieces of offline schoolwork per day, compared with the country-wide average of 20% during the first lockdown.
The disproportionate impact of the pandemic on children with SEND
In a survey conducted across Bradford schools, teachers expressed concern over the disproportionate effect of the COVID-19 pandemic social restrictions on vulnerable children and children with Special Educational Needs and Disabilities (SEND), including a lack of access to specialist services. These children and their parents experienced loss, worry, and changes in mood and behaviour as a result of the rapid social changes imposed during the pandemic. Some parents reported feeling overwhelmed, and normal support networks were disrupted.
During lockdown, children’s experiences of learning were much affected by access to resources and parents’ ability to help with schoolwork. For children receiving Free School Meals, parents were less likely to be working during the lockdown, however, these parents said they found it more difficult to help their children. Families raising children with SEND faced more stressors that adversely effected family relationships. Thus, family resource inequality extends both to the amount of time spent learning, and to the resources available to assist learning. The north of England saw lower levels of parental engagement than the south, and lack of parental support and limited access to technology were an issue for many.
A widening attainment gap
Pre-pandemic attainment gaps were already a source of concern, leading the Department for Education to create the Opportunity Area programme. This sought to address disparities in attainment and social mobility within areas that performed poorly on key metrics, disproportionately in the north. The Opportunity Area programme adopted a ‘place-based’ approach, targeting areas of greatest disadvantage, and it succeeded in addressing some educational inequalities. For example, in Bradford, the programme targeted school improvement: 39 schools rated as ‘Requires Improvement’ or ‘Inadequate’ in 2016 improved by one Ofsted grade by 2019, exceeding the 25-school target. This equates to approximately 12,000 pupils now attending a ‘Good’ or ‘Outstanding’ school. Unfortunately, there is growing evidence to suggest the pandemic has wiped out these hard-won gains.
Young people’s experiences of schools and disadvantage under lockdown were captured in the Youth Under Lockdown Survey. Young People frequently expressed significant levels of stress and anxiety over missed exams and schooling, exam grading processes, and potential disadvantage in progressing to later stages of education. Many expressed how much they missed the social aspects of school and the routine, and commented on feelings of isolation, loneliness and low mood.
There is a clear case for making educational settings the catalysts, enablers, and beneficiaries of multi-agency efforts to tackle structural inequalities. Systems must change so education settings can act as hubs where children’s holistic needs are met.
- Use educational settings as a means of connecting with families and localities
The education system must be at the heart of recovery plans. Educational establishments can draw on first-hand experience of what learning was lost – and the emotional and social needs of their children – to provide a platform to address inequality.
- Prioritise deprived localities
There is a need to prioritise and direct resources to the localities, communities, and individuals in the most deprived areas. There needs to be an increase in the spending available to schools serving the most disadvantaged pupils.
Policies must reflect the evidence: building new schools or improving school leadership in deprived areas will not tackle educational inequalities. A whole system approach across government departments, including directed resource, is required to reverse the tide of inequality.
- Make a reality of multi-agency working
Professionals on the frontline need to be given the freedom and support to connect and act together. This must involve removing ‘artificial’, non-legal barriers to information sharing that work against children’s best interests, the pooling of budgets, targeting of criteria, and alignment of operational processes. We need to develop information sharing tools and build effective education-centred partnerships at the local level, linking professionals and communities.
- Establish clear accountability and authority, with a single point of leadership
Recovery through educational settings requires resources and a mandate to challenge and influence delivery of support across services. A Senior Responsible Officer for tackling inequality within an area needs to liaise with multiple stakeholders and influence the deployment of resources and people behind a strategic plan. There is a need to establish a single, clear, and short management chain, enabling good oversight of issues, accelerated decision making, and clarity of communication. A ‘whole system’ leadership team must draw resources from across all agencies, including health, social care, and policing.
- Use educational settings to initiate earlier interventions
Teachers and early years professionals see many of the first indicators of risk and vulnerabilities. The post-lockdown problems of risk and vulnerability are likely to be felt particularly in the north due to extended lockdowns. Prioritising strong pupil and staff relationships and collaboration with parents and carers will ensure a firm foundation for meeting children’s needs and a return to learning.
- Support staff in educational settings
There is a need to consider, post-lockdown, how education staff can be supported and better prepared for possible challenges that lie ahead. In particular, teachers must be supported to maintain the level of care they provided to vulnerable children during lockdown. The wellbeing and mental health of education staff needs to be protected if they are to be effective.
This is an abridged version of the Schools and Education chapter from the Child of the North report, published in 2021 by the Northern Health Science Alliance.