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Education during Covid-19: Stopping a Broken System from Breaking?

Amy Cook discusses the widening education inequalities gap in the UK and how it can be bridged.

During Edinburgh’s recent snowfall, memories of cancelled school on snow days came flooding to mind for many; yet this year students had to miss out on the thrillful experience. . Since the third national lockdown this January, cancelled classes have become the rather uncheerful reality for children and parents alike. The transition to remote education has come to mean the loss of sufficient hours spent on children’s education. The length and quality of time spent working will now vary significantly by school and home environment, as well as parent ability to support online classes. Combined with the disproportionate economic hardships endured by poorer households, the Covid-19 crisis could have devastating long-term impacts on inequality. Today’s young people will have to pay the price for our response to the virus. Failure to act could lead to differences in grade levels, barriers to higher education and greater divergence in future incomes. The pandemic is widening the educational inequality gap. We need to bridge it.

The extent of the damage

Across the UK, education is far from homogenous. A recent report by the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) found that children from families in the highest income groups receive 1.2 more hours of learning time per week than those in the lowest. Another study placed estimates even higher, with the richest quintile spending 75 minutes more per day than the poorest. These figures are prepandemic. Whilst before they might have been easy to ignore, the longer schools are shut the more pronounced any differences will become.

More importantly, we must focus on the quality of teaching. The same IFS report found that throughout the crisis, children of higher income families had better access to home learning resources, such as desk space and a computer. This is unsurprising. What’s worrying is that these children, on average, spend more hours than their poorer peers involved in active learning, such as live classes, video calling and chat forums. Methods of remote teaching which encourage active participation undoubtedly engage students more, have higher information retention, inspire greater productivity and result in higher quality education for richer households. This is an invaluable chance to reflect on how we define good education, in order to refocus and innovate future efforts to reduce inequality.

The gap persists

Our main concern should be ensuring Covid-19 does not create a long-term drop in income, especially for poorer students who are least able to mitigate impact. Following the cancellation of GCSE and A-Level exams for the second year in a row, it begs the question of how students will progress to higher education and/or ensure future employers of their abilities. Ideally, our response will address both the loss in education and loss in signalling power, whilst helping reduce existing and persisting inequalities.

Another long-term concern is the development of younger years. For many young children, a normal school day last March has been abruptly followed by almost a year of being told to stay away from their friends, family, teachers, wear masks, alarming signs and distressed parents. Not to mention those who have lost family members. It is especially hard for young children to make sense of the events of the past year. It is yet to be seen how such trauma will affect their long-term development, but with studies suggesting the poorest children are already 11 months behind their peers when starting school, we should be fearful if Covid allows the gap to widen further at this crucial stage.

Spotlight on A-Levels and access to HE

Following the government’s U-turn last summer, there is increasing pressure to ensure grades will be awarded accurately and fairly. The controversial system saw 40% of students downgraded, with comprehensive students more likely to be downgraded than their privately educated peers. Ultimately, the decision was taken to revert to centre assessed grades which emphasised teacher input. A similar approach has been adopted this year, it was recently announced. Teachers must assess their students’ performance, based only on the content they have delivered. However, unlike last year, most of this year’s further education graduates have spent more than half their studies in and out of national lockdowns and remote learning. For many this means their teachers will not be able to fairly assess their ability. Those with smaller class sizes are at an obvious advantage, a feature most characteristic of private education.

The UCL Centre for Education Policy and Equalising Opportunities found that among high achievers (those who achieve AAB+), students from disadvantaged socio-economic backgrounds receive predictions 0.059 grade points lower than their more advantaged peers. They are also more likely to be under-predicted. Potential explanations for this are teacher bias underestimating the abilities of poorer students or disadvantaged students being better incentivised to improve following grade predictions. Neither of these are optimistic for teacher assessments preventing a widened education gap, at least across the highest potential students.

From the perspective of universities, there is also the question of how accurately grade predictions will reflect student ability. If they choose to consider predictions, they must appreciate that performance this year is, in part, a function of how well equipped your home environment has been. If they choose to discount predicted grades, they will have to contextualise other available information, such as GCSE grades or super-circulars. Otherwise, among students of equal ability and potential to succeed, those from high income families will have an advantage, aggregating the advantage already offered to them and exacerbating existing inequalities.

Spotlight on Apprenticeships

Often forgotten about, apprenticeships are a lifeline to young people wanting to develop practical skills and a viable alternative to those not well suited to an academic learning environment. They add substantial value to businesses wanting affordable labour, trained and tailored to their business needs. But beyond this, apprenticeships act as an important instrument in reducing inequality, since they place value on individual potential and build niche, in-demand skills, which ultimately lead to high wages. They are a step closer to creating a system where anyone can succeed, helping address inequality at the root. Apprenticeships should be a policy priority since they can simultaneously address the shortterm impacts of Covid-19 and long-term welfare objectives.

Given the large financial hit to firms this past year, the availability of apprenticeships has been badly affected by Covid-19. Overall, the number on-offer halved in 2020, with national lockdowns and inability to pay wages being the two main obstacles. Apprentices are the least priority for employers having to make tough decisions about the future of their employees and business. The value of apprenticeships has incentivised some policy action from the government. In a policy brief laid out last month, allowances are being made for some face-to-face assessments to go ahead, and greater flexibility for learning breaks and deadlines. But this is insufficient as it offers no protection over future placements.

Government Options

The pandemic is pushing government finances to extremes. Nonetheless, investing in the brains of young people will create high future returns. Investment must be focused at the school level, otherwise it will be too late. This should be central to any mid- and long-term recovery plan. When it comes to education, we should not be afraid to spend. This is echoed in the £302 million made available to primary and secondary schools in the most recent budget. This is a good start, if we can ensure the money is used to target inequality at its source.

The Government should step up their support for apprenticeships. They should work with firms to identify exactly what challenges they face. They should also take greater and more active responsibility for apprentices. This could range from subsidising and/or helping to relocate apprentices from firms under financial strain, to restructuring and centralising the system through which apprentices are hired. The same goes for universities. Ensuring the well-being of higher education is central to future economic prosperity. Policies such as increasing student loans to families hit by the pandemic, as well as allowing flexibility and subsidies to current students wishing to retake exams in the next few years will help mitigate the impact of Covid-19. Another option currently being discussed is summer schools. If they can directly target lower-income groups, they could potentially prevent a widening of the education gap.

What should Edinburgh do?

A large responsibility will still fall on university admissions to ensure fair admissions processes. Over the next few years, universities must judge applicants holistically. Prioritise potential as well as characteristics which make a successful student, such as resilience and passion, alongside grades. They should also continue to contextualise performance based on socio-economic factors, and expand programmes such as the Lothian Equal Access Programme for Schools (LEAPS), a school outreach initiative in Edinburgh. Often, poorer children are not aware that higher education is a potential option for them – direct communication with schools is the most effective way to reduce this inefficiency.

It is crucial that universities communicate that they are open, accepting students and committed to fair applications processes. They should publish transparently how they will make application decisions, specifically outlining how they will address cancelled examinations. Honesty speaks volumes, and will incentivise potential applicants to apply. With the shift to online education, comes the opportunity to engage virtually with young people like never before. Representatives can meet students in London at 9 and in Newcastle at 10 – engagement like this has never been feasible, and should be exploited whilst we can.

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