Disadvantaged pupils have been sleeping until noon under lockdown, while some have gained weight through unhealthy eating and others have allegedly witnessed or suffered violence in the home.
That's according to headteachers who spoke to Tes for this, the latest in a series of investigative articles about the widening of the attainment gap between disadvantaged pupils and their classmates during school closures.
Closing the gap: Lockdown's challenge for teachers
Exclusive: Covid-19 'widens achievement gap to a gulf'
Analysts say a decade’s progress on closing the gap could have been lost as a result of school closures, and the heads have already highlighted some of the problems that disadvantaged pupils have experienced during lockdown, including a lack of IT equipment and the absence of parental support.
Now watch and read about the insights they have gained now that more pupils are back in school. They reveal the new challenges ahead for teachers as they try to get disadvantaged pupils back on track as schools begin to open more widely.
Concerns about the newly vulnerable
Headteacher Paul Jackson of Manorfield Primary in Poplar, East London, where almost two-thirds of pupils are eligible for free school meals, says some of his returning pupils now considered vulnerable hadn’t been in the past.
They include a child whose parent had attempted suicide, one whose father had breached a restraining order and committed domestic violence against their mother, and another child who made an allegation that their mother had hit them.
“It’s a bit of a reality check,” he says. “Those are children who hadn’t been flagged up to us so they weren’t on our radar as vulnerable children.
“They’re now in school – we’ve got them back – but our concern is that, although we’ve got more than 100 children back, there are still 630 who are not in school, so there’s 630 whom we didn’t have previous concerns about. We’re talking to [them] on a weekly basis, but we’re still worried about them.”
He adds: “We’ve got some children that have put weight on – even though we’ve got the whole food poverty thing going on. Some children are clearly eating badly and some children don’t look like they’re in the best state of health.”
Jackson says children have clearly fallen behind, but, speaking last month, he questioned whether the school had yet to see the worst of it because the most needy children were not yet back.
He also said pupils were being turned away from school because they were arriving too late after sleeping in.
“The way we’ve got the bubbles working means that children have to arrive at school at a certain time,” he says. “So the gate opens for a certain bubble at a certain time, and if they miss that time slot we can’t really have them coming into school.
“What we know is that when we phone home – if we phone before 11am – the phone is very rarely answered, and it’s hard to know whether the parent is not up or the child’s not up.”
‘We may not have seen the worst yet’
Mr Jackson added: “Only 30 per cent of our parents have said they want their children to come back, so [with] the ones that are coming back, are we seeing a skewed view because we’re seeing, generally, the parents who are keen and the parents who want their children back?
“So are those the parents who were probably doing some decent home education anyway? Are we seeing the more engaged children because their parents are more switched on and they value education and they value school?
“Yes, we are seeing some children who are falling behind but not dramatically, certainly in the Year 6s – but is it because the disengaged families are not engaging, so therefore we have not yet seen the worst of it?
“And certainly with the youngest children…We are seeing some children that are out of routine that haven’t really had great conversations, so therefore some of their speech and language needs are greater, but our most needy children are still not back at school.”
Primary pupils sleeping in till noon
Howard Payne, headteacher of Medina Primary School in Portsmouth, where more than a third of pupils are classed as disadvantaged, also said his pupils had been sleeping in too late during lockdown.
He told Tes: “With the disadvantaged children that are not sending work in, we are phoning more regularly, and we’ve noticed as the weeks have gone on that the amount of communication from home back to teacher has diminished.
“If we haven’t heard from a child for two weeks, but the teacher is phoning them daily, I get to a point where I say I’m concerned about this, and there might be a safeguarding issue, and I’ll get on the phone and try myself.
“There are a number of phone calls that I’ve had to make to parents and I’ve found that the children are not getting up in the morning 'til very very late – sometimes after midday.”
He added: “Within the disadvantaged group, with at least a dozen parents I’ve spoken to, I’ve said, ‘Put Little Johnny on’ and it’s after midday and they’ve said he’s not available. It’s a significant minority. A number of parents have admitted it and said, ‘Oh, they’re not up yet’.
“There was one parent I spoke to, at about 11.30am, and I said, ‘OK, they should be up by now and the work’s on the website’, but the parent said, ‘I can’t engage them to do it’.
“We’re really worried about a significant number of our children – what will happen and where they’ll be in September.”
Kate Robinson, headteacher of Ormiston South Parade Academy in Grimsby, where 46 per cent of pupils are on free school meals, said some pupils were feeling “very overwhelmed” by the coronavirus pandemic and were afraid to return to school (see video, below).
But she also said there had been “quite a few success stories”.
She said: “There was a little girl in Reception and before we went off she was really struggling to form her numbers and even to recognise numbers at all; she was struggling just to hold a pencil. But now she’s come back, she can count to 50 and she can write her name and all her family’s names, so that’s a massive testament to her family for all the hard work they’ve put in. I think it’s that quality time they’ve had together, and the one-to-one time with her mum who has really been focusing on [teaching her child].
“There are some really close family bonds that have formed and some children are absolutely desperate now to get home to show their parents the work they’ve done.”
She added: “But all year groups have struggled with fatigue coming back. They’ve struggled with the long days. We had a couple of Year 1s and their mum rang up after the first couple of days and said, ‘It’s gonna be a struggle to get them in tomorrow – we might have to have a day to recover because it’s been a lot for them.’
She said: “We‘re just trying to be as positive as we can to get back in that routine and be as normal as we can because these are not normal times, are they?”
Pupils afraid to go outside
Ms Robinson added: “We have got a couple of worries about some children who have got a big fear now about the coronavirus, and they’re not willing to go out for their walks that they can go on with their families, and [are] not willing to walk to shops, and they really are feeling that they would be safer at home, so we’re working on that…Some children have got themselves really upset about things and that’s understandable.
“They’ve heard it on the news or they might have had personal stories linked to their families, so I’m worried about a couple of them who seem to have developed quite a big phobia – but we’re working with the families on it.”
Disadvantaged pupils forgetting how to form letters
Tim Roach, a Year 6 teacher and key stage 2 leader at Greenacres Primary Academy in a deprived part of Oldham, also said pupils had been nervous coming through the school gates at first.
He added that some pupils had complained of being tired after doing just one piece of work.
He said: “A lot of teachers were scratching their heads, thinking this is a lot more about the social element of learning rather than, necessarily, the academic gaps [although] they were there as well, with younger children not remembering how to form letters or their spelling being poor.”
Mr Roach expressed concerns about Year 5 pupils who would be doing Sats next year after missing more than a third of their academic year this year.
He said teachers were planning to “strip lessons back to bare essentials” as pupils returned in September, and that the school might reduce the number of lessons in a day.
He said: “In lower key stage 2, [disadvantaged pupils] are already a year behind, so I would imagine they’re probably going to be another six months [behind] on top of [lockdown].
“With younger children in Reception and Year 1, I think the way they teach down there will hopefully allow them to cover some of those gaps earlier. But we know, for example, with our phonics programme, that we were making loads of progress and we were closing a gap that already existed within our community and across our school, and we that know that gap will now have expanded again and that our children will have gone backwards in where we expect them to be.”
Mr Roach, whose school population is 95 per cent Pakistani, said some parents from black, Asian and minority-ethnic (BAME) backgrounds were reluctant to send their children back because they were “anxious” about spreading infection.
He said: “That’s a real problem to overcome. The parents are supportive of the schoolwork we are sending them and they are also coming into school to collect work, but without teachers being there it’s difficult to see how well it’s being done.”
Headteacher Ed Vainker, who co-founded Reach Academy Feltham, an all-through free school in one of the most deprived areas of south-west London, said only around 30 to 40 per cent of families had sent back their children in Feltham compared with more affluent areas in the same London borough (Hounslow) such as Kew and Chiswick, where around 80 to 90 per cent of pupils (in eligible year groups) had returned.
He said: “I definitely think there are trends in which children have returned to school most quickly, and I think it is a huge priority for all of us to build confidence for families that they can come back to school.”
He added: “In our school, one in four families are worried about paying the bills in the next month and that is really stressful. Feltham has got the second-highest number of workers furloughed, so 38 per cent of workers in Feltham will be furloughed. We are close to [Heathrow] airport, and I think these financial concerns are leading to a lot of anxiety and a lot of stress.
“A lot of pupils haven’t been out very much. Some families are nervous about catching the virus and so they’re not going out, and that again leads to anxiety and stress and that’s the bit of this we’re most concerned about – the impact on pupils' readiness to learn. It’s not universal, but in some cases it’s really acute.
Mr Vainker said he was sceptical about data showing the widening of the attainment gap between different groups.
He said: “I think the EEF published something [saying] that kids were making hugely different levels of progress in this period. I just think it’s very hard to quantify. This period is being experienced so differently by different families and different communities.”
He said that, while some pupils at Feltham had experienced “a really positive time, including quality time with their families” during school closures, there were pupils not classed as disadvantaged who had experienced “a much more challenging time”.
He said: “We just don’t know, fundamentally, what the impact of [the school closures] is going to be and what the impact already has been, and I think there is something very important about being very curious about what’s happening. And when I get asked my opinion about what we should do and what policy should be, I think the more certain people are, the less confident I am in what they’re saying.
He added: “We’ve always believed that the wider experience that a child is having has a huge impact on their ability to be successful in school, and I think the pressure that families are under financially in terms of anxiety and in terms of isolation and in terms of health – that’s the thing that concerns me the most.
“Children are experiencing huge complexity and difficulty in their home lives across all parts of our community and so helping them to be able to process that and reflect on that and then be ready to get back into learning as quickly as possible – that’s the big challenge and the thing I’m most concerned about.”
*All interviewees were speaking to Tes last month in the week after schools opened more widely to pupils in nursery, Reception, Year 1 and Year 6.