Poorest families least likely to send children back to school

Written by: Pete Henshaw | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

Fewer than one-third of the poorest families say they would send their children back to school should they re-open from June 1 – this compares to around half of the richest families.

It comes as statistics show that the most advantaged students are spending 5.8 hours a day learning at home compared to 4.5 hours a day for children in the poorest households.

This learning gap adds up to the equivalent of at least one full week of education between March 23 when schools closed and June 1 when some schools may re-open to certain pupils.

The findings have come in a briefing report from the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) based on a survey of more than 4,000 parents of children aged four to 15.

The report raises concerns about the kind of learning gaps that schools will have to deal with when all pupils return, but also warns that if schools do re-open the pupils who have missed out on the most learning will be the least likely to attend.

Overall, the survey found that only 39 per cent of primary parents and 45 per cent of secondary parents would send their children back to school given the choice. But when broken down by income, the figures are stark.

For primary schools, only 29 per cent of families in the poorest quintile would send their children back. This figure rises to 34 per cent in quintile two, 36 per cent in quintile three, 47 per cent in quintile four, and 55 per cent in the richest quintile of income.

For secondary schools, only 31 per cent of the poorest families would send their children back, compared to 44 per cent (quintile two), 42 per cent (quintile three), 48 per cent (quintile four), and 50 per cent (quintile five).

The report adds that if schools remain closed to the majority of pupils until the summer (or indeed if pupils are kept at home) then this learning gap between rich and poor could grow to more than three weeks.

The report states: “(This) is a stark warning to policy-makers: do not assume that the return to school can be implemented as quickly, or as uniformly, as school closures were.

“This strong relationship between income and willingness to return to school risks a situation where the children who are most able to cope with home learning return to school, leaving their more disadvantaged peers at home.”

The figures in the report show that secondary school pupils from families with the highest earnings are putting in 5.5 hours a day on educational activities compared to 4.4 hours a day for pupils from the lowest income families. For primary pupils, the most advantaged students are putting in six hours a day compared to 4.5 hours for the poorest.

It states: “These differences can compound over time. Over the 34 school days between the start of school closures on March 23 and the earliest date that (some) children might return to school (currently June 1), children in the richest fifth of families might have spent an extra 44 hours on home learning – equivalent to over seven full school days.

“If children do not go back to school until September, losing another 37 school days in the second half of the summer term, better-off children will have spent 92 hours more on home learning than those from worse-off households.”

The report also highlights how the most advantaged students also seem to be accessing “particularly beneficial” learning activities, such as online classes and private tutors. They are also more likely to have access to technology and resources for home learning.

Elsewhere, almost 60 per cent of the parents of primary school children and almost half of the parents of secondary school children said they were finding it “quite or very hard” to support their children’s learning at home.

The report concludes: “As a result, school closures are almost certain to increase educational inequalities. Pupils from better-off families are spending longer on home learning; they have access to more individualised resources such as tutoring or chats with teachers; they have a better home set-up for distance learning; and their parents report feeling more able to support them. Policy-makers should already be thinking about how to address the gaps in education that the crisis is widening.”

Alison Andrew, senior research economist at IFS and one of the report authors, added: "Children in lower-income households are less likely to have their own space for school work and less likely to have a computer or tablet to use for school. On average, the state schools that lower-income children attend are also less likely to provide online classes and other interactive activities than the state schools that higher-income children attend, leaving children more reliant on their parents for help.

“But less than a third of parents in the poorest fifth of families would send their child back to school if given the choice, compared with half of parents from more affluent backgrounds. This risks leaving the children least able to cope with home learning remaining at home even as their better-off class mates return to school."

Commenting on the report, Paul Whiteman, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, said: “This is an important study. Lockdown has provided a unique opportunity for policy-makers to reboot their attitude to disadvantage and equality of opportunity.

The disadvantage gap was huge before lockdown. Schools have taken action since to ensure that any further disadvantage has been minimised. Without doubt, education plays a key role in navigating a route out of poverty, but a lack of education does not in itself cause poverty. Other social factors do that, and to date they have consistently worked against schools' efforts. We need to rethink how we tackle inequality in this country.

“It would be disappointing if the same old arguments and assumptions about disadvantage were allowed to persist once lockdown has ended. We will be encouraging the government to grasp this moment and use it to level the playing field once and for all.”

  • Andrew et al: Learning during the lockdown: real-time data on children’s experiences during home learning, IFS Briefing Note BN288, May 2020: https://bit.ly/2XeCUcz


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