Coronavirus: 6 ways to support disadvantaged families

During the coronavirus school closures, disadvantaged families will need bespoke support, suggests Tom Harbour
6th April 2020, 12:02pm


Coronavirus: 6 ways to support disadvantaged families
Coronavirus: How Parents Are Struggling With Home-schooling

The current crisis is affecting all of us, but there is little doubt that the most disadvantaged families will be hardest hit.

Among the list of concerns (such as food security, safeguarding and mental health) is the impact that months of school closures will have on the gap in educational outcomes.

Research (Alexander et al, 2016) suggests that the achievement gap between different socioeconomic groups may grow primarily during the summer holidays, when children are away from school.

The normal summer holidays are, of course, only six weeks long. The impact of potentially six months away from school is a social experiment that none of us wanted to be running.

Teachers know how much this period could set their most disadvantaged students back and have been working tirelessly since schools closed to support them.

With parents even more important than ever, how should teachers best go about supporting their disadvantaged families in this current situation?

Coronavirus: How to support disadvantaged students

It has been great to see the number of education organisations that have committed to providing free resources to support parental engagement in their children’s learning at this time.

However, such resources have to be carefully designed if they are to reach the target audience of disadvantaged families. It is all too easy to half-bake support for parents, potentially helping to widen rather than narrow the disadvantage gap. 

What doesn’t work:

1. Repurposing teaching plans

Parents are experts in their child, but are not qualified teachers. Resources such as lengthy schemes of work or lesson plans are unlikely to help them to support at home. 

2. Complex language

It is easy to forget how much vocabulary you pick up as a teacher. Terms like “partitioning”, “digraphs: or “place value” may be commonplace for us, but parents cannot be expected to pick it up without support. 

3. Resource intensive activities

The lower number of books in disadvantaged households has been well documented, and this extends to items such as pens and paper, manipulatives and printers. 

What does work:

1. Small nudges

Based on work from the Education Endowment Foundation and researchers such as Harris and Goodall, teachers should try to support parents to have frequent and positive interactions with their child about their learning.

Ariel Kalil found that parents in disadvantaged communities have similar aspirations for their children and that with small nudges they were better able to convert these good intentions into daily habits and routines to support their child.

We don’t need to be turning parents into teachers, just giving them support and reminders to have simple but powerful interactions with their child.

2. Mobile-friendly

The vast majority of parent-aged adults in the UK have access to a smartphone capable of viewing a video or mobile-friendly website. In contrast, laptops and tablets are much less common in disadvantaged households. Many phone providers are also providing free data during the current crisis.

3. Online to offline

Many parents are worried about their children having an excess of screen-time during school closures. Ideally, activities for disadvantaged are delivered online (see why below) but played offline, which limits screen time and links learning to the real world.

4. Feedback loops

By using tech we can allow teachers to actively support parents to engage with their child effectively. For example, our programme Maths With Parents allows teachers to set topics for parents, but also to receive usage data, comments and photos from families.

This sort of easy-to-digest feedback to teachers can inform their approach, allowing them to put extra support in place with disadvantaged families who need it.

5. Don’t assume

It is important to consider parents in a broad sense, as often the person engaging with the child will be a grandparent, older siblings, carer, etc.

Also, try to avoid adopting a deficit model. Build upon their strengths rather than starting with what you perceive that they will not or cannot do.

6. Build a relationship

Try to balance the power dynamic. Teachers are experts in the pedagogy, but parents are experts in their child. Try to build a constructive relationship in which it is clear you both have the same goals at heart.

For time-poor parents, consider activities that link to daily routines such as bath time, or that encourage creative play with their siblings like setting up a shop.

This sort of activity can be initiated by the parent then left for the children to play during these isolated days


Tom Harbour is the CEO of the non-profit Learning with Parents, whose full programme of support is free for all schools and parents during the school closures.

Learning with Parents are hosting a free webinar on Tuesday 7 April, 4-5pm to consider the following question: What can we in the education sector do to support disadvantaged communities with parental engagement at this critical time? Register here.

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