How are vulnerable learners coping amid coronavirus?

The disadvantage gap for vulnerable learners has never been starker than in this coronavirus crisis, finds Kate Parker

Kate Parker

Coronavirus: How to support vulnerable learners in lockdown

Martin* lives in supported housing in Yorkshire. He is 17 years old and has an education, health and care plan (EHCP). Martin finds it difficult to respond appropriately to everyday social contact, which often results in impulsive and risky behaviour. He dropped out of mainstream education before he was 16, with no qualifications. However, with the support of his tutors at the local Nacro centre he attends, he has returned to education and was making positive progress. 

The coronavirus pandemic has turned his world upside down. He can no longer attend the centre every day to gain that vital support and guidance that he needs to stay on track. Instead, like everyone else, he has to stay indoors. It is a challenge for everyone, but more so for someone who already has complex mental health and emotional challenges.

To begin with, things were going well. Martin had coursework to complete during lockdown and his tutors had been in regular contact. But during the Easter break, Martin, having completed the work, became bored and restless. 

He refused to stay inside, putting himself and those around him at risk. It escalated so much that the police were informed, and they considered taking Martin into custody for his own protection. 

The impact of coronavirus on vulnerable learners

His key worker from Nacro, George*, became aware of the situation and a package of support was put in place to ensure that Martin could engage with his education. More coursework was provided, as well as some DVDs and gaming equipment.

Thanks to George’s help, Martin stayed indoors for the rest of the break.

This is just one example of how some of the sector's most vulnerable learners are struggling to cope with the impact of coronavirus. 


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Nacro, a social justice charity, has 14 education and skills centres up and down the country and supports around 2,000 16- to 18-year-olds. These are the hardest-to-reach students – all of whom will have dropped out of mainstream education. Some 50 per cent have a learning difficulty or disability, 14 per cent have EHCPs, 10 per cent are in care or are care leavers, and 5 per cent have been in the criminal justice system. 

Three-quarters of Nacro’s learners face one or more factors of social disadvantage – and it’s in times like these that these factors become more visible than ever.

“Coronavirus has highlighted the inequalities with our young people working from home: the disadvantage gap is never more stark than when they are not in the classroom,” says Amber Orsborn-Smith, Nacro’s curriculum and innovation manager. 

“Working from home has compounded issues that were already there: mental health, difficulty engaging, tech poverty: we normally overcome those in the classroom and in our centres. We are working with parents, carers, local authorities and social workers to ensure that our learners are not any more disadvantaged under Covid-19 then they have to be.”

Before you even consider education – how learners will be able to learn remotely when many don’t have laptops or tablets – there are the very basic necessities, like food, finances, shelter and mental health support to consider. 

The majority of learners at Nacro centres receive some sort of bursary, and normally food poverty charity FareShare delivers food parcels to centres. Now students are at home – and, in some cases, fully isolating – access to food has become harder. Nacro has been working with charities like the Trussell Trust to deliver food packages to those families most in need and has ensured that learners still receive their bursaries.

“In order to be able to get an education, we all know our basic needs need to be met, whether that is financial, food, shelter, alongside making sure they progress and achieve their qualifications. We call all learners at least once a week, if not most days, to keep track on those basic needs and signpost agencies that can support them if necessary.” says Orsborn-Smith.

Picking up the phone

It is this phone call that is absolutely central to Narco's plan during the coronavirus crisis. Every single learner is called once a week, as a minimum, and those most vulnerable are reached out to daily. During these phone calls, the learner and tutor fill out a personal development review, which asks questions about wellbeing, welfare, Covid-19 understanding and progress.

Simon Ashton, who runs Nacro’s Boston and Wisbech centres, says that those conversations really enable staff to target those who need extra support. 

“It’s a change for all of us – but for learners who have struggled in the past to even engage face-to-face in a centre, doing it from home is so difficult. Each individual learner has their own challenges, and this situation has bought up different challenges for each of them,” he says. 

“Our safeguarding processes haven’t changed, so if a learner gives a concerning answer we will escalate it. We have regular meetings with the designated safeguarding officers to sit and talk about those cases – often they need more than support from us and we’ve been working with other agencies to ensure they get that.”

A key part of providing learners with extra pastoral support has been giving them a focus, even when they are not learning. The Boston centre set up a Friday quiz for students to join in with, they are doing fitness challenges – learners are nominating each other every day to do 21 press-ups for the NHS. There’s also a photo competition going on. It’s all about bringing them together with staff and facilitating fun, says Ashton. 

'Business as usual'

And when it comes to teaching and learning, it’s business as usual, despite any tech poverty, he says.

In the weeks before the centre officially closed, staff had conversations with learners about what resources they had at home. For those who didn’t have laptops or tablets but had smartphones, learning packs were prepared with weeks and weeks of content. They were shown how to use Genius Scan, an app that allows students to take pictures of worksheets and send them over to staff. Staff can then digitally mark on the sheet and send the feedback back to the learner. For learners without smartphones, all feedback is given over the phone.

“We can’t just set up a virtual learning environment and expect all of our learners to access it and be able to complete their work,” says Orsborn-Smith.

“We’ve had a blended approach to learning. We continue to track progress because we want to maintain our high standards regardless of the fact that they may be more disadvantaged being at home.” 

And actually, engagement levels are higher than ever. 

I’ve been blown away by how quickly learners have adapted and responded. We’re keeping structure and routine as much as possible. For learners that would have two maths lessons a week, or two English lessons a week, six vocational lessons, our teachers are still having that amount of contact, whether it’s streaming a lesson via Zoom, having email communication or calling them to talk through their work,” says Ashton. 

“One way or another, we are reaching learners – and week on week we are seeing more engagement and more work come back from them. We want them to make progress. Yes, the situation is difficult and, yes, many of them have barriers but we are saying to them, we want you to have high aspirations, we want you to achieve. Our aspirations are high – and even in this situation, that does not change.”

The importance of great relationships

The high levels of engagement are a tribute to the brilliant relationships that Nacro’s staff foster with students, says Orsborn-Smith

“We provide a huge amount of support to these young people, quite a bit more than they’d imagined,” she says. 

“If you haven’t got other support networks contacting you on a weekly basis, but you have got Nacro who will contact at least once a week, if not more than that, then the opportunity to speak to that person becomes more attractive.”

Relationships, Ashton says, are absolutely crucial to helping these students to achieve. 

“We have a real personalised approach with them, we have their interests at heart and we want them to make progress. For many of them, they are doing that. We are keeping expectations high, telling them they can achieve – that’s key. Some of them won’t have parents who say 'well done' or who believe them. Having that from us – even over the phone–- is crucial.' 

“If we hadn’t had those relationships with them before this situation, maybe the phone calls wouldn’t have been so engaging. But they really value the staff, and they are grateful for the calls we have with them. Yes it’s a new way of working but actually so far, so good. It’s so inspiring to see the work our staff and students are doing, despite the odds.”

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Kate Parker

Kate Parker is a FE reporter.

Find me on Twitter @KateeParker

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