Coronavirus 'set back' efforts to close attainment gap

Some students who got into university as a result of cancellation of exams may have been better served by HNs at college, says report
31st December 2020, 1:52pm
Julia Belgutay


Coronavirus 'set back' efforts to close attainment gap
The Coronavirus Pandemic Has Led To A Set Back In Efforts To Close The Attainment Gap, According To A New Report

Efforts to close the attainment gap will have suffered a set-back as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, Scotland's commissioner for fair access has said.

In his new report, The Impact of Covid-19 on Fair Access to Higher Education, Professor Peter Scott says that the closure of schools in the first phase of the pandemic disadvantaged students from deprived communities because of limited access to suitable IT and study space.

While schools have stayed open since the summer, he says attendance has been "uneven", with more pupil absences in deprived communities: "Despite the best efforts of schools and local authorities efforts to close the attainment gap will have suffered a setback."

The report points out that the cancellation of National 5, Higher and Advanced Higher examinations in the summer and subsequent replacement with teacher assessments led to an increase in the number of "qualified university applicants, which was met by the (necessary and welcome) provision of additional funded places by the government". It adds: "Nevertheless it is likely that, because of the limited supply of qualified applicants from socially deprived communities (and other disadvantaged groups), a majority of these extra places were filled by applicants from more privileged social groups."

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The report points towards further challenges the post-16 education sector could face over the coming years, saying that the "unplanned inflation" in Higher grades and increase in the number of first-year places "led to students being admitted to university who in previous years would probably have been enrolled on Higher National programmes in colleges".

"It might have been the case that they would have been better served by taking HNs," says the commissioner, adding that "universities may face additional challenges in terms of support for under-prepared students".

The commissioner points out that despite the impact the pandemic has had on schools, many universities have not adjusted their admissions process.

"An inevitable result of the pandemic is that school performance has been disrupted. Pupils who took National 5 and Highers in the summer gained better-than-expected grades, which may happen again in 2021 if next year's school leavers are not to be disadvantaged," the report states. "School attendance in the current academic year has been substantially affected by rising infection rates and the need for quarantining, with schools in more deprived areas hardest hit. But many universities are reluctant to revisit their minimum entry requirements or change their policies on contextual admissions - despite the evidence that examination grades have become less reliable and pupils from more deprived communities have suffered the greatest disadvantage."

However, the commissioner says the overall national target that 16 per cent of higher education entrants in 2021 should come from the 20 per cent most-deprived communities as measured by the SIMD (Scottish Index of Multiple Deprivation), "has probably not been in serious doubt despite the Covid-19 pandemic". Some individual universities may have lost ground, however, - "not necessarily in terms of their numerical targets for recruiting SIMD20 students but in terms of the proportion of SIMD20 entrants".

The report states: "As a result of Covid-19 the 2026 target, of 18 per cent of entrants from SIMD20 areas, may be more challenging - confirming the conviction that this is not the time to ease off on efforts to achieve fair access."

Those from the most deprived backgrounds were also more severely affected from the impact of digital poverty and were more commonly lacking digital literacy - both affecting progress on access, says the report. Financial hardship has increased among all students, it adds, and the the impact of Covid-19 on mental health "has been severe".

According to the widening access commissioner, continuation rates at university so far do not appear to have been adversely affected by the pandemic, but "there is uncertainty about whether students facing the greatest challenges and suffering the greatest disadvantages will be able to stay the course, and about the extent to which all students have been 'learning' as well as 'attending'". "Success rates, in terms of completion and grades, may also be affected, in the short and long term."

Shona Struthers, chief executive of Colleges Scotland, said: "The commissioner's report confirms what we expected - Covid-19 has had an adverse effect, particularly for the most disadvantaged, and the report also underlines the importance of addressing fair access. Therefore, ensuring progress will be even more critical over the next few years, a challenge that colleges will rise to as we go forward.

"The report rightly highlights digital poverty as an issue that needs to be addressed. The global pandemic has accelerated the use of online and digital learning across the sector and it's more important than ever that students are able to fully participate in that as colleges continue with blended learning. No one should be left behind because of lack of access to the necessary equipment and technology.

"The report also highlights the impact on staff, with colleges working hard throughout the pandemic to deliver remote learning and to ensure that students have devices to access their classes online. There remains, however, challenges around connectivity and infrastructure in some areas, as well as access to suitable home learning environments. Therefore, we are pleased that colleges can continue to offer vulnerable students much-needed restricted access to campus facilities and ongoing support."

Ms Struthers added: "Mental health is another area of concern identified by the commissioner and, while colleges have put in place additional support for both staff and students, it is clear that further resources are required to ensure the ongoing wellbeing of those in colleges across Scotland. Colleges are intrinsic to helping create a fairer society and the sector will continue to ensure that all learners, regardless of age or background, have equal access to education."

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