Coronavirus Spaces and services

Towards resilience: addressing inequalities in education

Ahead of our panel discussion with the Education Policy Institute on 2 February, their chief executive Natalie Perera looks at the fragile school system that existed before the pandemic, the ways in which the crisis has exposed it even further and how communities can play an important role in making it more resilient and equitable. 

This pandemic has tested the resilience of public services to their core, almost no service has been immune to the disruption caused by the virus. But, unfortunately the very nature of many of these services mean that they are almost always responding to the unexpected.

For schools, the unexpected can include dealing with an urgent safeguarding issue which could be a, literal, life or death matter for a child, a significant change imposed by government, such as a new Ofsted framework, or a complete overhaul of the GCSE grading system. The reality is that schools are adept at dealing with disruption.

But when the unexpected happens, how can we ensure schools are as well-equipped as possible to deal with the impending storm? The pandemic has taught government, local authorities, schools, and communities some important lessons about how we can improve the resilience of the education system.

Building resilience in schools

The first is the importance of accountability and clear reporting lines. For the past decade, questions about the expansion of the academies programme and the resulting role of local authorities have dominated public debate and discourse. Towards the end, both government and the sector grew weary and, rather than reach a solution, we resigned ourselves to a fragmented, mixed-market model, even though we knew it was a massively sub-optimal conclusion.

The challenges for schools were already significant, well before COVID struck the nation.”

Those fractures in the system became exposed during the first lockdown in March 2020 when schools had to close down to all but the most vulnerable children and those of key workers. While local authorities were, in theory, responsible for the education of vulnerable pupils and those with special educational needs, schools were tasked with ensuring those pupils were identified and had access to school during the lockdown period. Accountability therefore became blurred and, where relationships between local authorities and academies were not consistent or constructive, there was a real risk of vulnerable children slipping through the net.

The second challenge was how to ensure that vulnerable children got access to the resources they needed during lockdown, particularly free school meals and digital devices. In this instance, fractured delivery and reporting lines hindered progress but so too did the lack of any solid contingency plans. The government had to procure a new voucher scheme for free school meals, which took valuable time and left many families not knowing who to go to in the absence of a clear policy.

As we rebuild our public services and economy post-COVID, it’s important to avoid the temptation to just get back to where we were.”

Even once it was introduced, the voucher scheme was riddled with technical delays and meant that many schools introduced their own solutions – such as in-house catering and home deliveries – in order to circumvent the complexities of the new scheme. Similarly, the provision of laptops to disadvantaged pupils was delayed and initially only available to a small minority of pupils that needed devices. We saw two separate processes, set up; one for local authorities and one for academies, creating added bureaucracy at a time when efficiency was most needed.

Existing inequalities

But the challenges for schools were already significant, well before COVID struck the nation. Our research found that, in 2019, disadvantaged children were already just over 18 months behind their more affluent peers by the end of secondary school. In some areas of the country, the gap exceeded two years. Those inequalities are likely to have worsened as research shows that, during the lockdown period, disadvantaged children were less likely to have access to online teaching, less likely to have their own digital devices or a quiet place to study and, as a result, participated in fewer hours of online learning compared to their more affluent peers.

If we want schools to be truly resilient, the gaps between disadvantaged children and their peers must be addressed.”

Even once they reopened to all pupils in September, schools and the communities they serve continued to grapple with pupil and staff absences, the long-standing effect of lost learning time and the mental health impacts of the pandemic. Indeed, recent NHS data covering summer 2020 shows that rates of probable mental illness in children have risen to one in six, from one in nine in 2017. During this prolonged period of school closure, we once again face a widening of inequalities due to disparities in home resources and the economic instability of many families.

Education beyond the pandemic

COVID-19 has not affected everyone equally and nor has it disrupted an otherwise egalitarian system. As the attention turns, as it almost inevitably will, to how we rebuild our public services and economy post-COVID, it’s important to avoid temptation to just get back to where we were. Because where we were was not good enough. The inequalities that already existed in our education system meant that, when the pandemic hit, we were building our recovery on sand.

If we want schools to be truly resilient, then the endemic gaps in outcomes between disadvantaged children and their peers needs to be addressed.