Left Behind? The Equality Impact of the Current Coronavirus Crisis on Young People and Schools

Equality Impact of Coronavirus Crisis on Young People and Schools
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By Sarah Soyei: sarah@equaliteach.co.uk

We are living through history. In some ways it’s as if the wishes of thousands of young people were suddenly realised ‘I wish school would close down!’ ‘I wish we didn’t have to sit these exams!’ However, as anyone who’s ever familiar with tales of genies knows, wishes don’t often run smoothly and the crisis that we are currently living through has the potential to exacerbate existing inequalities and impact more heavily on young people who are already more disadvantaged by the current system.

Schooling from home is not an equal experience for all young people. Research conducted by Northumbria University shows that time away from school has different impacts on children from different backgrounds. Over the summer holidays, middle-class children maintain their skills but poorer children experience summer learning loss, and their attainment reduces as they get out of the habits of learning. The current situation is likely to compound this discrepancy, for young people who have access to individual computers, a desk in a quiet location and support from healthy, well-educated, time-rich adults, it will be an interesting challenge, a fun adventure, a chance for families to come together to learn.

However, this is not the situation for millions of children in the UK. Research by the Sutton Trust found that in the most deprived schools one third of pupils are not able to access online resources. The government has recognised this and has created a scheme to provide free laptops and routers to care leavers, those with social worker support and those in year 10, but this scheme will take time to implement and is only the tip of the iceberg. Children attending Independent schools are twice as likely to have access to live online lessons. Part of this is due to funding and resources. Independent schools and state schools in more affluent areas are more likely to have existing online platforms that allow them to conduct classes online and receive work submitted by a class.

Many parents and carers have had bad experiences in their own schooling and do not have the skills or confidence to support their children to access education. One of the schools who is working with EqualiTeach to complete an Equalities Award used part of its budget last year to buy every child a book for Christmas and for many of the pupils this was the first book that they had ever owned. These children are not going to have access to a wealth of resources with schools and libraries closed.

Low income earners are disproportionately suffering from job insecurity and are more likely to have been made redundant; nearly a million people applied for Universal Credit in the last two weeks of March. The Independent Social Metrics Commission estimates that 4.6 million children are living in poverty, with families struggling to put food on the table. Children trapped in small spaces without access to desks, materials or even enough food are not in spaces conducive to learning.

Pupils who were due to sit external exams this year are now going to be awarded grades based on teacher assessment, class ranking and the previous performance of their schools. Ofqual have announced that teachers do not need to set new work in order to award grades, which helps to counter some of the inequalities of the different opportunities that young people are facing in learning from home. However, young people without home support will find it harder to successfully move on to their next phase of education or to change their awarded grade by appealing the process or sitting exams in November.

This way of allocating grades is also likely to impact adversely on some young people from Black, Asian and other minority ethnic (BAME) backgrounds. Research carried out by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills found that BAME applicants to university had the lowest predicted grade accuracy, with only 39.1 per cent of predicted grades accurate, while White students had the highest, at 53 per cent. Everyone within a school is affected by external influences and every teacher brings a set of cultural norms and practices into the classroom, which influences their conscious and subconscious behaviour and attitudes. If teachers are not aware of the unconscious prejudice and stereotypes that they carry, it can result in negative outcomes for the young people that they are grading.

The University of Bristol conducted research to compare the differences in blind externally marked tests and internal teacher assessments to compare differences between White and BAME pupils and found evidence that some minority groups are systematically under-assessed relative to their White peers, while some are over-assessed. Professor David Gillborn, has stated:

“White people tend to have very different expectations of Indian and Chinese and black Caribbean kids… if a Chinese student age 14 is being predicted a C in science, the teacher will very often see that as they’re underachieving … whereas the black Caribbean kid who’s predicted that same C grade would tend to be told, ‘Oh, you’re doing alright. You’re going to pass. It’s going to be fine.’ They won’t get any of the extra push.”

Research funded by the Greater London Assembly in 2018, backed up these findings, demonstrating that teacher bias was a major factor in lower achievement of Black Caribbean boys. Evidence suggests that Black pupils disproportionally put in bottom sets; are disciplined more frequently, more harshly and for less serious misbehaviour; and that they are less likely to be praised than other pupils, even from very early on in their education.

Evidence shows that teachers want to get things right, and when provided with training and opportunities for reflection disparities are reduced. However, many teachers have not had the opportunity to explore issues of race equality in either initial teacher training or through continuous professional development.

Teachers are doing an amazing job in the most challenging of circumstances. Many are still going into school, putting themselves in danger of contracting coronavirus and sacrificing time with their own children to support the most vulnerable young people. Others are working long hours devising new ways of teaching and helping young people at home. An assistant head teacher in Grimsby is walking 5 miles a day to deliver packed lunches to 78 children in his school who may otherwise go hungry.

However, when we emerge from the other end of the crisis, it can’t be a case of returning to business as normal. Many commentators have spoken of how the current crisis as a time to reset, to reflect and to change. The inequalities which exist in the life chances of young people have been laid bare and now is a chance to help tackle them.

What can be done now?

  • Many schools are already innovating ways to help pupils, for example, sending out packages containing exercise books and stationery, devising activities that can be done with everyday items and loaning resources. By working together to share strategies schools can learn from each other to best support students who do not have internet access, books and other materials.
  • Charities such as the Sutton Trust are recommending that funding and support is made available to ensure that high-quality online tuition is made available for disadvantaged pupils. One to one tuition has been shown to be one of the most effective ways of helping learners to catch up
  • Teachers who are setting grades should receive training on unconscious bias and reflect on their expectations and assumptions to limit the impact of bias when grading young people for exams.

When schools return:

  • Schools need to be funded properly to expand the long-term support for those from disadvantaged backgrounds. Extra funding should be allocated for schools in the most deprived areas and for extra tutoring for those who need it the most.
  • Schools will need resources to provide extensive pastoral care to support young people whose mental health and wellbeing has suffered during the coronavirus crisis
  • Statutory RSE and Health Education is due to come into force in September. This is an opportunity to ensure that all schools have a robust PSHE provision which will allow young people to keep themselves healthy and safe and equip them with skills they will need throughout life.
  • Training on issues of equality should be a priority in both initial teacher education and continuing professional development to help to reduce disparities in the experiences of young people and ensure that schools are safe and inclusive for all children and young people.
  • Alongside training and reflection on teacher’s expectations of young people, the processes within the education system which lead to unequal outcomes for pupils need to be dismantled; through processes such as conducting equality impact assessments, examining the curriculum and environment for inclusivity and recognising and responding effectively to prejudice and discrimination.

How can we help?

  • We have a range of educational resources on a variety of equality topics, which include information and guidance as well as activities and lesson plans that can be used at home or at school. These can be downloaded for free here. We will be recording tutorials for some of the activities, which will be shared on our youtube channel
  • We are able to offer live, interactive online teacher training sessions on equality and diversity, unconscious bias and other topics. Get in touch to find out more
  • We are developing an e-learning platform for parents and educators to access online training in their own time. Sign up to our mailing list to be notified when the platform goes live

One Response

  1. Some of this is so sad. I was moved to tears reading that some children do not have a book at all. Is it too late to address unconscious bias for this year’s grades? What can I do to help?

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