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Public Policy|Southampton

Learning inequalities during the Covid-19 pandemic: how families cope with home-schooling

Southampton Education School, University of Southampton

Dr Nicola Pensiero, Prof Anthony Kelly, and Dr Christian Bokhove



Downloadable Report (July 2021)Link to project's follow up webpage

Evidence Week 2020

Watch the three minute briefing represented by Dr Nicola Pensiero, Prof. Anthony Kelly and Dr Christian Bokhove from the University of Southampton.

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Home schooling
Home schooling


The spring of 2020 saw the widespread and prolonged closure of schools across the UK due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Schools had to switch to distance learning very rapidly without any prior experience, preparation or training. Although a phased reopening from the First National Lockdown began in July 2020, students transitioned to distance learning again in January 2021, impairing an already difficult learning recovery. The transition to distance schooling has affected student learning and transferred a great deal of responsibility for educational activities to families, some of whom struggled with the challenge, thus exacerbating inequalities in learning opportunities by socio-economic status (SES). The current debate on the extent of the learning loss resulting from these two periods of school closure and the measures necessary to remediate that loss, against a backdrop of possible further closures as new variants of the disease get a foothold, demands a thorough analysis of the learning experiences of children during the closure periods and the extent to which schools improved their remote delivery between the two closure periods. This report provides such an analysis, using longitudinal data from the April 2020 and January 2021 Understanding Society (USoc) Covid-19 surveys.

As both surveys interviewed the same families, were representative of the UK and were linked to previous USoc surveys, we were able to construct a rich, reliable and longitudinal dataset of approx. 2300 children in primary school and 3000 children in secondary school to look at:

1. Whether (and to what extent) the prevalence of schoolwork changed between the first and the second school closure periods. We focus on four outcomes: time spent doing work provided by the school; provision of online school lessons; provision of offline school lessons; and amount of parental support.

2. Whether (and to what extent) the gap in schoolwork between the least disadvantaged (high socio-economic status, SES) and most disadvantaged (low SES) families changed between the first and the second school closures.

3. The extent to which changes in schoolwork can be explained by compositional effects; i.e. changes in observed circumstances such as acquisition of new computers and home-working patterns versus changes in family engagement with schoolwork, such as being more committed and ready and able to assist children.

We define SES using parental occupation, and as a combination of occupation, working patterns and access to computers. We finish the report by recommending several policies to mitigate the impact of school closures on the learning gap between different socio-economic groups.

Executive Summary of Findings

• The transition to distance schooling has exacerbated inequalities by socio-economic status (SES) due both to the gap in the volume of schoolwork completed and to the relative ability or inability of some parents to support their children’s learning.

• While parental occupation alone was found to be a significant determinant of differences in the volume of schoolwork among students, its effect was amplified when combined with student access to computers, family circumstances and parental working patterns.

• The provision of schoolwork improved in both primary and secondary schools in the second closure period (January 2021 through February 2021) compared to the first school closure period (from late March 2020 to the start of June 2020). The number of offline and online lessons per day increased and this led to a larger volume of schoolwork being done, from 2.3 hours per day to 3.3 hours per day in primary schools, and from 2.6 hours per day to 4 hours per day in secondary schools.

• The increase in schoolwork provision can be explained by the improved provision of lessons, by greater availability of computers and by the fact that families were better prepared for the second school closure and could engage more with the schoolwork provided.

• The results show that in January 2021 the gaps between ‘service class’ students (students whose parents are large employers, higher managers and professionals) and ‘routine class’ students (students whose parents are in routine and semi-routine sales, service, technical, agricultural and clerical occupations) reduced and became non-significant for primary school pupils. Service class and ‘intermediate class’ children (those whose parents are lower managerial, administrative and professional, small employers and own account workers) did not receive any more support from their parents than routine class children.

• Primary school children of single parents who worked from home were able to reduce the gap in schoolwork done compared to the most advantaged socio-economic group, but generally, inequalities between socio-economic groups in the uptake of schoolwork remained stable between the two school closure periods.

Executive Summary of Recommendations

Our findings suggest that:

• If it is feasible in terms of containment of the virus, it is important that schools remain open during any further phases of high infection in order to avoid a further widening of the achievement gap between socio-economic groups and to avoid the negative impact on the mental well-being of children and their parents, which itself is likely to be associated with socio-economic status. The priority must be to avoid a ‘Matthew Effect of disadvantage’ where more and more opportunity is taken from those children who already suffered the most from the two school closures.

• Should schools be forced to close again in the event of another lockdown, inequalities in learning can be remediated by increasing the provision of lessons, providing students with better access to IT and by providing academic tutors to compensate for the absence of parents who cannot work from home.

• Better and more widely available access to IT and online resources is not enough. Provision targeted at the most disadvantaged should include more and better guidance for parents on using the IT resources provided. It is in the nature of socio-economic disadvantage that parents in such circumstances are less familiar with and less adept at navigating the wide array of resources that the government has properly provided during the pandemic.

• The traditional proxy measure of socio-economic disadvantage in education is entitlement to Free School Meals (FSM). Our research shows that this measure is too crude in the circumstances of the current pandemic: that within the FSM category there are pockets of even greater disadvantage related to poor access to IT, parental occupation and family circumstance; and outside the FSM category there are pockets of similar disadvantage, all of whom are less likely to access schoolwork during school closures and are more likely to suffer the largest learning losses. When providing schoolwork remotely during a school closure, schools should consider providing guidance and tutoring targeted at: children who do not have a computer or do not have ready access to one; children of single parents; and children of routine class parents who cannot work from home.

• The government catch-up funding and schemes like the National Tutoring Programme are a timely response and a laudable effort at closing the attainment gap between socio-economic groups. From a quantitative point of view, the total allocation per pupil of £80, which amounts to 6 additional days of schooling, is likely to be insufficient to attenuate significantly the attainment gap between socio-economic groups widened by the pandemic. Catch-up tutoring should be of the order of several weeks of schooling, but qualitatively it is important to target online and offline resources, tutoring (online and face-to-face), IT hardware and Learning inequalities during the Covid19 pandemic guidance for parents on using it to those students which our research has identified as being in greatest need. To do otherwise is to risk piling disadvantage upon disadvantage, from which it would be very difficult to recover, when the next school year opens in September.

• Schools and not central government are in the best position to identify those students and families most in need and should be provided with the necessary funding and flexibility to target provision and support immediately to the most disadvantaged students. If government concedes the principle, schools must not delay its application. 

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