The Covid-19 divide: A national strategy must be launched

The impact of Covid-19 on our poorest children is going to be felt for some time to come. A national strategy is needed to reverse the damage that is being done, says Deborah Lawson

The dialogue around schools is very interesting at the moment. For the first time in a while, teachers are being afforded the regard they deserve. They are being trusted by government to use their professional judgement in terms of assessment and how to lead learning outside the classroom. This cannot be ignored next year when it has been so important and recognised this year.

Not only has there been active teaching and learning inside the school for the children of key workers and vulnerable pupils, but there has been an exponential growth in online and remote learning. However, the remote teaching revolution has served to highlight the huge digital divide in our country.

The government introduced its “Digital Access Offer” to support disadvantaged year 10 students as well as care-leavers, or those with a social worker, to provide them with devices and 4G routers for online learning (DfE, 2020).

However, the roll-out of this scheme has not been without its problems. And what about those who need support but miss out on the entitlement? For example, those who live in rural areas with poor broadband and limited mobile coverage?

There is a bigger question which parallels horses and water. Some of these learners will be highly motivated; some, such as young carers, will have personal circumstances which prevent them having dedicating time for learning.

Still others will lack the parental support to engage with learning outside of school, and any provision of equipment and digital resources may be used in a haphazard and hesitant way.

The Centre for Economic Performance (CEP) at the London School of Economics suggests that the lockdown and school closures will disproportionally impact children in low-income families the most (Eyles et al, 2020). The research found that the closure of schools in response to the Covid-19 pandemic has “opened up a chasm” between pupils with involved parents who attend outstanding schools, and children who don’t enjoy such advantages.

Children from disadvantaged backgrounds are likely to be affected more than others by school closures, with fewer family resources and less access to online learning resources to offset lost instruction time.

While some schools may be able to make up the effect of each week’s shutdown with two to three hours extra per week over a school year, others may need many more extra hours than is feasible.

And while teachers and support staff want to help all of their children to succeed, it cannot be done at the expense of wellbeing and workload. Furthermore, everyone is entitled to time off to relax this year, just the same as any other, although it may be an unusual kind of summer holiday.

What does this mean for school accountability? While Ofsted is unlikely to resume inspections this academic year, the achievement, or not, of the previous half year will have affected progress, and this is likely to have an impact.

Voice has already been asking the inspectorate what measures it is putting in place to ensure schools and early years settings are not unfairly disadvantaged by Covid-19, and what this means for the children themselves.

Will schools be asked to try and close the gap? Voice believes that it is learner need that is paramount, rather than filling an accountability gap. The former is something all teachers will prioritise, and rightly so, and it must go hand-in-hand with learner wellbeing, and a curriculum which is centred on learner needs, rather than purely on attainment. We will be actively seeking clarification from government that accountability will not take precedence.

The online resources that schools have curated, as well as those created by the BBC, the Oak National Academy and many others, should persist and be employed – especially as the Digital Access Offer is realised – to support in-school learning and promote lifelong learning.

However, strategies such as these should not be burdensome and should not load stress and anxiety onto those they are designed to help – neither the teachers nor the learners.

This is not going to be solved soon. There will be a lasting impact, and this is likely to be most keenly felt by those least able to do anything about it.

It is clear that there is a need for national strategy, in conjunction with the workforce, to support all learners affected by Covid-19.

  • Deborah Lawson is general secretary of Voice.

Further information

  • DfE: Get technology support for children and schools during coronavirus (COVID-19), April 2020:
  • Eyles, Gibbons & Montebruno: Covid-19 school shutdowns: What will they do to our children's education? CEP Covid-19 analysis (1), May 2020: