“Civilisation is a race between education and catastrophe”
H. G. Wells
It has been reported, perhaps unsurprisingly, that the impact of this pandemic will impact our disadvantaged learners the greatest. Some reports in the media suggests that the marginal gains of the decade long Pupil Premium project, could now have been largely wiped out altogether. (1)
Rather deflating to say the least given how hard won this marginal gain has been to the profession. Which is why it is now more important than ever that we focus our attention and marshal our resources to ensure that the educational and pastoral needs of our most disadvantaged learners remain at the top of our minds.
Pre-Covid, supporting disadvantaged students to mitigate the impact of the barriers that contributed to their progress ‘gap’ relied mainly on what could be achieved supporting them face-to-face in the physical school.
In the ‘new normal’ the vast majority of learning can only be delivered online.
Sadly this exacerbates the educational disparity between disadvantage students and their disadvantaged peers even further. (2)
To mitigate this we need to first understand what the new or exacerbated barriers are, and their causes, before we can design and implement strategies to try to tackle them.
The Education Endowment Foundation’s recent Rapid Evidence Assessment of the impact of school closures on the attainment gap identifies two key factors affecting learning while pupils are at home:
Remote learning and parental involvement. (3)
As a school we have determined the three following key barriers for our disadvantage learners in the new virtual, or blended learning, school model.
1. Access to IT equipment
Our disadvantage students are more likely to have limited or less access to their own computers or other digital devices. If they do, these items are more likely to be older, and as a result not work as efficiently as more up to date machines.
In addition to the equipment itself we have a large rural catchment area and calculate that we could m have as many as up to 100 homes without reliable broadband Internet access.
2. Digital Literacy
Our disadvantage students are less likely to possess the higher levels of digital literacy now required to embrace new technologies and systems necessary for their new model of learning.
The levels of digital literacy among members of their family are also likely not to be as high as families where one or more of the parents work in professions reliant on high levels of digital literacy. Therefor a disparity of on hand support at home will also be a significant barrier.
It is already well recognised among the profession, disadvantage learners are more likely to possess lower levels of resilience when facing challenges. It is cruelly ironic that our disadvantaged students will need bucket loads of resilience now more than ever to face the challenges of this new normal.
It takes a great deal of resilience overcome the challenges of sharing unreliable IT equipment and the patience and resolve to systematically and logically work through unpredictable and inevitable technological hick-ups whilst getting used to this new way of learning. Many will simply give up, switch off and stick their heads in the sand ….widening the disadvantaged gap further still.
What can we do about it?
We are approaching those three key problems in the following ways…
Access to IT equipment
Using a combination of coordinated eForm questionnaires, and through our frequent pastoral monitoring phone calls home, we are identifying students who have limited access to IT equipment.
We have increasing the capacity of available laptops for loan by:
• Recommissioning any available laptops we already have.
• Applying for more through the Government COVID scheme (announced on the 10th April).
• Redirecting school budgets – no longer being spent due to partial closure – to make available funds to purchase more laptops to make available for loan.
• We are investigating the feasibility of providing mobile broadband services to those few homes that don’t have available landline broadband by talking to mobile network providers.
We have developed an online training course to support our students basic digital literacy specifically using the cloud based computing software that our blended virtual learning provision will rely upon.
We have develop and designed the course to be completed by the students and their parents/carers together. This hopefully supporting the development of the digital literacy of not only the students, but of those supporting them at home too. You can access the course to take a look here.
Right from the outset and when the schools first closed – our primary objective was to swiftly develop and maintain a well coordinated pastoral monitoring regime across the school.
For this purpose we broke our students down into one of three categories according to their broad pastoral needs.
Vulnerable students – Safeguarding
Vulnerable students – SEN
Disadvantaged students – Pupil Premium students identified specifically as at risk of not making expected process.
Remaining students – Students not in one of the 3 categories above.
This allowed us to distribute the remote pastoral care of the students effectively across the various teams within our school, and enable us to delegate to members of staff to capitalise on their specific areas of professional expertise in the following way:
Vulnerable students – Safeguarding are been called by our safeguarding, pastoral and behaviour support team staff. This is being led and monitored by our senior member of staff responsible for safeguarding.
Vulnerable students – SEN are been called by their specific learning support key workers. This is being led and monitored by our senior member of staff responsible for SEN.
Disadvantaged students – are being called by members of staff across the whole school that volunteered, and in the hope of matching staff to students where an existing positive relationship and connection existed. This is being led and monitored by myself as senior member of staff responsible for Pupil Premium.
Remaining students – are being called by their tutors. This is being led by myself as Pastoral Lead, and monitored by our Heads of Year.
We are using these regular calls home to monitor the students access and engagement to the learning, to troubleshoot IT, to academically coach, and mentor them in terms of their welfare and mental health.
All calls are logged centrally and securely online, including a brief summary of each conversation, so that the various team leaders, and Heads of Year can maintain monitoring and quality assurance of the process.
The organisation as a whole, students and staff are all on a steep learning curve. We are finding that regular completion of work is worryingly lower than we had expected or hoped. Completion of work amongst our more disadvantaged learners is perhaps unsurprisingly less than that of their less disadvantaged peers. However we can see gradual progress on this front being made.
This is a new normal. So the sooner we get the vast majority up and running, to the extent that they are engaging with all of their work fully, the better and less of the impact on the disadvantage gap.
It is clear that schools are going to begin to have to treat ‘digital’ literacy with the same high-profile as literacy itself. ‘Digital’ literacy must now be the new literacy.
(1) Guardian: Decade of progress in tackling pupil disadvantage ‘wiped out’. https://www.theguardian.com/education/2020/jun/03/decade-of-progress-tackling-uk-pupil-disadvantage-wiped-out-coronavirus-school-closures
(2) Dan Nichols: Urgent action required – Addressing disadvantage. https://dannicholls1.wordpress.com/2020/04/05/urgent-action-required-addressing-disadvantage/
(3) Education Endowment Foundation: Impact of school closures on the attainment gap: Rapid Evidence Assessment – June 2020. https://educationendowmentfoundation.org.uk/public/files/EEF_(2020)_-_Impact_of_School_Closures_on_the_Attainment_Gap.pdf