A profession that wasn’t used to working remotely had just days to develop a strategy to ensure learning continued with limited budgets and no training.
The assumption from Whitehall was that each student would have a space to work uninterruptedly; would have access to a computer with broadband as well as the necessary stationery and equipment to continue the learning; and that the teaching staff would have the ICT equipment, the training and confidence to offer lessons remotely.
The reality for some children was sharing a device at the kitchen table while other family members were busy with their own paid work or learning. Sometimes, there was no family PC and children had to work from a smartphone, without a proper keyboard. Any live lesson timetable that schools were running needed negotiation, as lessons couldn’t be accessed concurrently. The expectation was that families had broadband or at least a considerable mobile data allowance, and this comes at a price.
One thing became clear: the more technology a family had, the better access each child had to an undisrupted education.
From the outset, access to technology, or lack of it, influenced the approach that a school could take. Many private schools could simply continue with ‘normal’ teaching while many state schools had to make difficult choices and offered extended projects, set work via learning platforms or posted work out. As well as lacking the necessary technology, some students also lacked routine and/or motivation; they quickly became detached from their learning and this naturally impacted on progress.
Fast forward to the autumn term: despite warnings from the National Education Union (NEU) and others, the Government pressed ahead with the full reopening of schools without any effective Covid-19 test and trace system in place. The consequences have been significant and, as a nation, we are now in a very precarious situation. Schools in certain hotspots have been hit particularly hard by staff absence and by students being stuck at home self-isolating or, frustratingly, unable to get a test booked. Quite simply, teachers are not in school to teach and students are not at school to learn, and the same inequalities based on a lack of technology prevail and continue to impact on progress.
The BBC reported that attendance in secondary schools in England in October had dropped to 83 per cent nationally. Some areas in the north had attendance rates for secondary school as low as 61 per cent, whereas others in the south were close to the usual national figure of 95 per cent. Latest statistics from the Department for Education (DfE) show that about half of all state-funded secondary schools have pupils self-isolating.
As reported in Schools Week, school leaders fear their pupils will be disadvantaged in next summer’s exams, as constant Covid disruptions have created a more ‘diminished’ learning experience in their schools compared with less affected areas.
If the same levels of staff absence and students isolating continue in the same way as in the first half of term, it will be very difficult to ensure consistent education for all pupils across the country. Even Nick Gibb, the Schools Minister, said that an issue that “really worries” him was the “unevenness” in the experience of students who had missed education after schools reopened fully in September.
This is also a concern shared by Mary Bousted, joint general secretary of the NEU, who said: “Some pupils through no fault of their own will be in school for less time than their peers. It is completely unrealistic, and unfair, to expect these pupils to take exams which make no compensation for disruption to school teaching time.”
In normal times, private schools, with smaller class sizes and enhanced provision, have allowed for an unequal playing field. Now, school closures in certain areas, and thus a lack of consistent education, have created even more of an imbalance, yet every child will sit the same exams. The varied experience that students have had since March will give an advantage or disadvantage in the summer exams. All students are equal, but some students are more equal than others.
Chris Dutton – Assistant Headteacher and member of the NEU Executive