Are we there yet? How the pandemic is affecting children and young people’s learning and how to support

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School children in classroom
School children in classroom

By Dr Karl Kitching, Reader in Education Policy
School of Education, University of Birmingham

This article describes what we know about how the pandemic has affected children and young people’s learning, offers some support links to parents and schools, and invites parents to support their child’s participation in a new University of Birmingham survey.

Are we there yet?

It’s been a long nine months since schools first closed for most children. But not all children, young people, parents and of course, teachers, have been affected equally by the pandemic. The government’s approach to A-Levels and concerns over racial bias in predicted grades and access to third level were highlighted over the summer. Terms like ‘learning loss’ were added to the pandemic vocabulary, reflecting concerns about children who are disadvantaged or have a special education need being more likely to fall behind. Just before half-term, a new legal duty was placed on schools to provide remote education to any pupil unable to attend school. But two days later, as half-term commenced, the government cut laptop allocations for disadvantaged pupils.

So, as vaccines emerge and we’re tempted to ask ‘are we there yet?’, we know already that some children, parents and schools have faced far more bumps in the road than others. If you’re looking for help in the short-term, a lot of good resources have been posted online by organisations such as the Young Minds, Autism Education Trust, NSPCC, and Birmingham Children’s Partnership.

Mapping the journey in Birmingham

In the longer term, a team from the School of Education established the Birmingham Education and COVID-19 Initiative in collaboration with Birmingham City Council, to understand how education has evolved in the city during the pandemic. Through a parent survey, interviews and surveys of children and young people, we’ve found that:

  • Children and young people had very varied experiences of school work, remote teaching, and receipt of devices prior to the summer holidays. In an already highly fragmented school system, variations in the quality and type of school support has increased further.
  • As expected, children’s and families’ experience of remote learning has been further influenced by the resources available to households to support it.
  • BAME parents and parents of children with SEND reported greater concerns about lack of support and greater vulnerability amongst their children, in terms of feelings of isolation or worry about their school work.
  • In a small-scale survey of children and young people in August, children reported needing help most commonly with maths, sciences, languages and English.
  • Schoolwork tended to feel harder to do at home and many missed their schoolfriends. But being at home was a source of relief for some students who experienced bullying at school.
  • Talking about returning to school in September, children said things like:

I feel I haven’t done work to the best of my abilities… and I feel my work may not be viewed as acceptable, even though I tried my best”

I am looking forward to the human interaction and motivation that comes from being in school”

“I am just wanting for things to be back to normal”

“I have autism and at school I find other pupils distract me and bully me”

What’s next, and how can you help?

Our research team have responded to the government inquiry on COVID-19 and education to state:

  • Local Authorities should be empowered on a statutory basis to address variability in education provision and access; co-ordinating rapid responses in the case of school closures and targeting resources where they are needed most;
  • The notion of ‘learning loss’ can be used to ignore the varied support that marginalised communities receive. Families and communities need to be included more directly in education partnerships, in order to recognise their capacities to support learning as well as more accurately identify their needs
  • A national drive to support interactive online teaching, and to differentiate for students with varied experiences, strengths and needs is critical.
  • Access to broadband and IT hardware and software should be treated as a basic education resource, just as school buildings once were, and be made available by Government to all children and young people who do not have this.

Things are changing all the time. So we are running a new Children and Young People’s Survey to understand 8-18 year-olds experiences of education in Birmingham since schools re-opened in September 2020. If you’re a parent of a child aged 8-18 years old, and would like them to share their experiences, please follow this link, send us your contact details, and we will share the children’s survey with you.

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