Closing the gap: Lockdown's challenge for teachers

'Some pupils have regressed': teachers talk to Tes about the learning loss faced by the most disadvantaged under lockdown

Covid gap

A decade’s progress on closing the attainment gap between disadvantaged pupils and their classmates could have been lost as a result of school closures during the coronavirus pandemic, according to analysis published this week.

But what does that mean for individual schools? How are heads and teachers seeing the problem on the ground, and how might they begin to address it as pupils return?

In the next in a series of articles about #ClosingTheCovidGap, Tes talks to six heads and teachers from across the country about where more than two months of lockdown has left their most disadvantaged pupils.


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‘You can lead a horse to water…’

Schools were closed to most pupils for two months, but headteacher Paul Jackson estimates his disadvantaged pupils could have fallen behind by around double that.

Almost two-thirds of pupils at his school – Manorfield Primary, in Poplar, South East London – are eligible for free school meals, and the majority do not speak English at home.

“We’ve got some parents who are illiterate, innumerate and some parents who just haven’t got the level of organisation to be able to get a child to engage," he says.

"It’s not even that there’s resistance, it’s just that they haven’t got the space within their homes.”

Mr Jackson says his school has been providing “a whole raft” of online learning and has set up a YouTube channel with phonics and maths teaching and “story time”, among other content.

But he says: “Some children haven’t engaged at all. Some children haven’t got the IT technology, some children there are multiple siblings at home and they haven’t got the space to learn.

“Our children come from such disadvantaged backgrounds and we’ve got such an excellent team of teachers that they drive that learning so children make accelerated progress when they’re in school.

“Those children not having exposure to our staff means that they’re not making accelerated progress, they’re making zero progress, and I would say they are regressing.“

Mr Jackson says the most disadvantaged pupils have been getting phone calls home three times a week during lockdown and that the school has been sending books and toys home where families were not engaging.

But he says it's like a “leading a horse to water” scenario if his staff are not there to facilitate. He says some children will not have had any decent level of conversation during lockdown, and that younger children will have lost socialising skills, fine motor skills and confidence among “a whole raft of other things”.

‘Year 2s are playing Fortnite’

"I worry whether some children are even going to remember how to grip a pencil properly – some of them are going to be back where we were at the start of the year,” says a Year 2 teacher from West London.

“You only have to look at the data showing how many children have accessed work online and you can see that all of the disadvantaged children are not accessing or minimally accessing it.

“But when you call the parents – if you can get hold of them – and you ask if everything is all right and if they’ve been using the online resources, they say, ‘Yes, of course we have’ and then it’s a very difficult position to be in to say to them, ‘Well, actually, you haven’t, have you?'"

From conversations she has with her pupils, the teacher – who does not wish to be named – believes some of them are playing Fortnite, the online video game rated 12.

“Disadvantaged pupils are falling so far behind," she says. "We have put out packs for pupils to download, but there are only a certain amount of devices in a household, particularly where children are disadvantaged.

“I have children whose parents are primary teachers who will have done creative curriculum learning. They will have just been learning through spending time with an educated adult and having conversations about what they’re doing in their life – whereas some of these children are lucky if they get their mum to make a packet mix of cake with them.”

Parents' phone ‘not always suitable’ for home learning

“We think about 30 per cent of our disadvantaged kids have access to a computer or a tablet,” says Kate Robinson, headteacher of Ormiston South Parade Academy, Grimsby.

“The majority do have access to the internet, but this is on their parents’ phones. Obviously, that’s not always suitable for home learning, so what we’ve been doing is printing off work and hand delivering it to pupils’ homes to try and get things going. It’s things like craft packs, pens, paper, glue, scissors…whatever we can to help them, basically.”

Ms Robinson, whose school has 46 per cent of pupils on free school meals, says it's “difficult to say” how far disadvantaged pupils will have fallen behind under lockdown.

She says: “It’s obviously difficult to tell remotely what support they’ve had with their work.

“When children come back, the first job will be for teachers to assess where they’re at with things like wellbeing and hygiene, and once everybody is settled we’ll be looking at where they are [academically] and if they’ve developed any gaps in their learning – and we’ll very quickly put things in place to close the gaps.

“They’ll probably have a lot of questions and things they’ll want to talk about, and it will take a while to get back into a routine.”

‘There's a lack of routine, let alone the academic loss’

Year 6 teacher Tim Roach says he had a panicked phone call from a parent while she was at the checkouts in a supermarket because the free school meal vouchers he’d delivered to her weren’t working.

“It just shows what an effect this whole situation is having on everybody’s lives," he says.

“We’re going to have to do a hell of a lot of work around social and emotional learning [when we get back] – and then there’s the lack of routine, let alone the academic loss.

“In the autumn term, we’re going have to go back to basics and back to first principles with things like the principles of instruction.”

Mr Roach is key stage 2 leader at Greenacres Primary Academy, in Oldham, where 95 per cent of pupils have a Pakistani background.

The proportion of pupils on free school meals is 14 per cent, which is around the national average, although Mr Roach says the school is in one of the most deprived areas of Oldham.

He says the learning loss among pupils will be “so varied” and that some will have been benefiting from a high level of support from parents while others will have been caring for younger siblings in the absence of parents.

“The higher attainers who are switched on and have parents who have the time and the inclination to help will be absolutely fine," he says.

“The rest of the children will be okay and will be on a spectrum of how much they’ve missed and how much they’ve picked up and I think they’ll be okay with that.

“But we do worry about the children who haven’t managed to have a device or haven’t managed to have the time or haven’t got people at home to help them, and there’ll be some children that will have gone off the radar for various reasons.”

‘We’ll play the ball where it lies’

“There's going to be a big disparity in the amount of learning that’s gone on,” says headteacher Lisa Armstrong, of Lythe Church of England Primary School, near Whitby, in North Yorkshire.

“We’re planning a recovery curriculum, so we'll have a really clear idea of what we’re going to do.

“We’ll have to find out where children are and what they need. Emotional and social learning is going to be really important and so is reintegration into school learning after having learned at home for so long.

"We'll play the ball where it lies. We'll start where we are.” 

Although her school has a below-average proportion of children on free school meals (around 10 per cent), being in a remote area means that even where children do have devices, they may still struggle to access the internet owing to a poor connection.

For that reason, the school posted learning packs or delivered them to pupils' houses across a 70 kilometre-square area of remote North Yorkshire.

“Some pupils have gained learning they wouldn’t have got," she says. "There’s been a huge amount of outdoor learning and practical tasks. Pupils have been building, making, creating and baking.

“There are going to be positives when we come back, which will give us a bit of a boost. The actual technical side of what things they don’t know remains to be found out.”

'Lockdown impacts all students'

“I’m not planning for us to rush into lots of extra lessons and extended days and all that kind of stuff," says headteacher Ed Vainker, who founded a free school in one of the most deprived areas of South West London.

“The first thing schools need to do is just do all the things they did before that were working.

"Let’s get everyone back in the classroom and get our lessons working well and understand where kids need extra help, and let’s provide it for them, and let’s also be really sensitive to the emotional needs they have.”

Mr Vainker is headteacher and co-founder of Reach Academy Feltham, an all-through school where around a third of pupils are on free school meals.

He says staff have been “keeping the ship running” under lockdown and that 94 per cent of pupils – from Reception right up to Year 13 – have been submitting “substantial amounts of work” every week.

Although he admits he is “really worried” about the widening attainment gap between disadvantaged pupils and their peers under lockdown, he says there has been “a universal impact” on all students.

“I worry about saying this is a particular problem for this group or that group because everyone’s experience is going to be really different.

“There’s a bit of a risk of over-narrating how terrible things are. For some, it will have been a really positive time within the family and for others, it will have been really difficult. And the job is to get our children back to school as safely as we can and then figure out what our communities need and what our individuals need and then deliver it."

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Dave Speck

Dave Speck is a reporter at Tes

Find me on Twitter @Specktator100

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