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COVID-19 and the increase of inequality of access to high quality education

As the Covid-19 pandemic continues to cause disruption to people’s lives, Dr Wayne Harrison, MD and Founder of the peer-to-peer learning app, Peer Tutor, explores how the ever-present threat of another lockdown might further increase the attainment gap between learners from different economic backgrounds.

As a nation, we learned in a short space of time that many schools were not equipped or prepared for a pandemic. This is not a criticism, as almost every sector of society has been significantly impacted in some way by Covid-19, with the exception perhaps of toilet roll manufacturers or purveyors of online conferencing software!

However, as we are already seeing signs of a second wave of the virus emerging, if we are to learn from our experiences of lockdown in its first iteration, then we need to do more to sure-up our state education system to ensure that future generations are not disadvantaged for years to come.

Research published by Professor Francis Green from University College London’s Institute of Education ‘Schoolwork in lockdown: new evidence on the epidemic of educational poverty’, provided policy makers and Government with an early indication of the issues facing the education of children during Covid-19. To summarise some of the key points:

  • One fifth of pupils – over two million children – did no schoolwork at home, or less than an hour a day. Only 17 percent put in more than four hours a day. The inequality between regions and social groups was substantial.
  • Offline schoolwork is lowest in the Northeast of England, where the proportion receiving four or more daily pieces is just 9 percent, compared with the country-wide average of 20 percent. In the Southeast region, 28 percent of children are receiving four or more pieces of offline schoolwork per day.
  • 31 percent of private schools provided four or more live online lessons daily, as compared with just 6 percent in state schools. Support from teachers checking private school pupils’ work was strong, and virtually all private school children (97 percent) had access to a computer at home.
  • One in five of those on free school meals had no access to a computer at home.

The partial reopening of schools in June and July then provided further challenges, as the additional demands of split classes and social distancing placed pressure on primary and secondary school leaders to focus their teachers’ attention on provision for the small percentage of learners in school, rather than those at home. In some cases, research by National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER) revealed that as little as 6 per cent of teachers were focused on remote teaching which as a result, put pressure on parents to step up to the plate.

As a parent myself, I found home schooling incredibly difficult even though I am a former teacher and my wife is a teacher. We had to juggle trying to motivate our daughter to complete self-directed learning tasks whilst working from home ourselves. She had no

access to online lessons from her school despite being a pupil at an Ofsted ‘Outstanding’ rated primary school.

My daughter’s experience of remote learning is not unique, with the same study from NFER revealing that 61 percent of learners in state schools were directed to complete worksheets or do work from textbooks in place of direct interaction with their teachers. By comparison, many private schools were able to switch to online teaching when the pandemic hit so pupils were able to continue learning new content with their teachers.

If children in key examination years are required to sit their exams in the usual exam windows, the vast majority of pupils outside of private education have a monumental challenge to catch up and are significantly disadvantaged.

Unless, as a country, we can move learning online for all pupils when local lockdowns are enforced, the divide between the privately educated and state educated children will have a profound impact on the life chances of many. As a society, we cannot allow this to happen.

As we all know, Covid-19 is not going anywhere fast and the next academic year will not be normal. The release of the Catch Up Premium and National Tutoring Programme may help to close the gap for some, however, more than anything we need to ensure that all schools, teachers and pupils are equipped to provide interactive distanced learning in the event of further school closures. To find out more about Peer Tutor, visit


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