New survey data shows divergences in the experiences of schools according to deprivation and some important convergences about what needs to change, writes Gemma Moss

One of the more remarkable side effects of the Covid 19 crisis has been the clear light it has shone on child poverty in the UK. Perhaps at last we have reached a tipping point in a value system that has often blamed the poor themselves for not doing more about their circumstances.

For a long while this thinking has permeated education policy – education is treated as the escalator out of poverty for those families willing to grasp the opportunities it offers. Schools that fail to ensure poor children catch up with their more affluent neighbours are simply not doing a good enough job. On the backs of these assumptions we have built a system of testing and accountability that judges schools by what they haven’t done, not what they have, and pays little attention to the impacts material poverty has.

Early commentary on the impacts of school closures on the most disadvantaged communities recognised how vital a role schools play in keeping children fed and safe, yet offered these pupils only the prospect of harder work catching up once schools reopened. Some calculated how many lessons had gone missing and the cumulative burden this would place on poor children’s shoulders unless teachers got back into the classroom quickly.

Our research tackled the problem differently – asking primary school teachers to tell us about what they had been doing during this time, and how a more resilient education system could be built going forward.

They are asking to take back into their own hands how they plan their way out of the crisis

Surveyed in late May 2020, 1,653 teachers in English state primary schools told us about their priorities. Headteachers were spending an extraordinary amount of time looking after families’ mental health and physical welfare, whether by liaising with their local authority and social services (82 per cent), checking in personally with parents (86 per cent), organising food banks or food parcels (52 per cent) and delivering hard copy learning resources to families without internet access (55 per cent).

Teachers working in the most deprived schools felt these pressures most acutely. 78 per cent were checking on families’ health and welfare, and 42 per cent had informed families of where they could find additional support, compared to 68 per cent and 22 per cent of teachers working with the least deprived.

More teachers in the most deprived schools spent time finding ways for children without internet access to continue to learn (63 per cent vs 41 per cent). Conversely, schools in the least deprived areas had more time to commit to helping parents support their children’s work at home – 75 per cent vs 52 per cent in the most deprived areas prioritised this.

All teachers planned learning activities that children would enjoy, but those in deprived schools were less likely to suggest fun activities for the whole family (31 per cent vs 42 per cent) or capitalise on the opportunity for children to learn differently (12 per cent vs 24 per cent). Poverty creates its own costs. 71 per cent of teachers working in deprived areas thought the lockdown would impact on their pupils’ academic progress compared to 45 per cent in the most affluent areas.

The Covid crisis has sharpened teachers’ perceptions of the unfairness of a system that ignores the material disadvantages poverty creates.  77 per cent thought that “If testing and inspection goes ahead as normal next year, schools serving the most disadvantaged communities will be unfairly penalised.” 71 per cent agreed that “Schools have an important role in building community resilience that should be both recognised and funded”.

Choosing between 5 statements, 44 per cent agreed that “Education alone cannot fix the wider structural inequalities in our society that have put some communities more at risk”, 28 per cent chose “At last we have the opportunity to reimagine primary education differently – don’t let the crisis go to waste” and 22 per cent “Schools need the opportunity to develop a recovery curriculum, responsive to local needs”. 94 per cent of teachers want things to change. They are asking for schools to take back into their own hands how they plan their way out of the crisis, at what speed, with local goals and priorities in mind. We need to rebuild better.

 

The survey was part of the ESRC-funded project, A duty of care and a duty to teach: educational priorities in response to the COVID-19 crisis