What are schools’ emerging priorities in this new lockdown?

18 Jan 2021, 5:00

Free school meals numbers have surged, sparking fears over pupil premium funding.

Lockdown 2.0 is having a much greater effect on primaries while inequalities continue to manifest, writes Laura McInerney

This year’s lockdown is not like the other! Despite the fact that this year’s spin to remote learning actually came with less warning (in that it happened literally overnight), schools were nevertheless readier for its consequences.

Since October, schools were legally required to provide remote learning to any students at home and isolating. Hence, most schools already had a system for sending work and giving feedback to children at home.

The trickier bit has been managing critical worker children. Teacher Tapp data on this blew up across the media last week – from Newsnight to The Andrew Marr Show on Sunday – after we revealed that one in three primary schools have at least 20 per cent of their children in attendance at the moment. During the last lockdown, the figure was one in every 100, and no one had more than 30 per cent of children in. This time, it’s around 15 per cent of schools.

What we haven’t seen are swathes of schools with 70 per cent of pupils attending, nor are schools in the poorest areas most likely to be overrun. Though this is often claimed, it is based on presumptions.

Instead, our data suggest that primary schools in the most affluent areas have the highest numbers – and this is particularly true in the north. It’s rare that northern, affluent areas stick out in our data. Typically, when something is happening a lot in the north, it’s because that phenomenon is happening in poor areas. So what’s causing it?

Primary schools in the most affluent areas have the highest numbers

Simply, northern England has higher rates of public sector employment. Around 20 per cent of people in work in the north-east are in the public sector, compared with around 12 per cent of employees in London and the south-east. This means there is a higher proportion of people in the north working in the services typically thought of as ‘critical’, e.g. the NHS, police, civil servants and so on.

Also, London and its surrounding areas have the highest hospitalisation rates as they were the epicentre of growth for the ‘mutant strain’ that ruined Christmas. There is more urgent messaging from local media and from headteachers, not least because more of their staff are off sick. Add this to the lower public sector employment rates, and you can see how a primary school in the south may be less attended this week.

Unfortunately, teachers in affluent schools also have the highest pressures on them to do ‘live’ video lessons – presumably as more families have a child in private school, where this sort of lesson has been common since March. Primary school teachers in affluent northern areas are therefore suffering a double whammy of needing to deliver the most online learning and the most in-person teaching!

Of course, teachers in disadvantaged communities face other pressures. There, the number of vulnerable children is likely to be higher so there is a significant safeguarding and food package burden.

The Sutton Trust has also published data this week showing that a majority of school leaders in the most disadvantaged areas haven’t been able to provide even half of their pupils with the necessary equipment for home learning. Again, primary schools have been the worst hit by this.

In the last lockdown the focus was on getting laptops to older secondary students, but primary-aged children are much less likely to have their own device. Ofsted’s guidance, published this week, notes that children who work on phones and tablets are less likely to spend as long on their tasks. (Notifications probably don’t help with concentration!) Laptops are therefore vital if young people are to have the best at-home experience.

One final piece of data, which I’m afraid verges on the anecdotal: just like last lockdown, I’ve done several radio phone-in shows in the past weeks. Back then, there was a great deal of frustration at what was being offered by schools. Now, there is almost universal praise and surprise at how well schools have pulled their lessons together.

It really does seem that this lockdown is different from the last one. Ideally, there won’t be another to compare it against!

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