Socioeconomically disadvantaged children in England are approximately a year and a half behind their non-disadvantaged peers in terms of their academic attainment by the time they leave secondary school. Concerns have mounted that the disadvantage attainment gap will be exacerbated with COVID-19, as it has amplified the digital divide faced by low-income families in accessing online schooling. Many families living in poverty have unreliable, if any, Internet access, and electronic devices such as tablets are shared with siblings. These factors make it difficult to access and complete schoolwork, with working-class pupils half as likely to participate in live and recorded classes compared to middle-class children. The limited cultural capital of low-income parents compounds this disadvantage, since their more restricted knowledge and understanding of the education system implies they may be less equipped to assist their children academically. Indeed, working-class parents have reported feeling less confident in educating their children, and directing them to spend fewer hours learning during school closures than middle-class parents do, reflecting inequalities in the home learning environment.
How has government policy sought to address this? With arguably limited and delayed funding, as well as insufficient targeting towards disadvantaged groups.
The government’s flagship education policy in this pandemic is the coronavirus (COVID-19) catch up fund. This is a one-off £1 billion in funding that will be allocated to schools in the 2020-2021 academic year in order to compensate for lost teaching time. It consists a £650 million catch-up premium for schools to use at their own discretion, and a £350 million National Tutoring Programme to provide additional support for disadvantaged and vulnerable pupils.
Given the 8% real-term decrease in school spending per pupil over the last 10 years and the challenges posed by COVID-19, any extra expenditure is welcome. However, with this funding ostensibly serving the purpose of pupils “catching up”, we must ask which pupils are intended to catch up.
Mainstream schools will only receive a supplementary £80 for each student from reception to Year 11, with no weighting depending on the school’s or area’s level of deprivation. This means schools with a high intake of pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds in the most deprived parts of the country will receive the same funding as those in the wealthiest areas. The absence of redistribution of resources suggests the rationale for this policy is not underpinned by a concern for equity.
Moreover, the National Tutoring Programme, which does attempt to confront educational disadvantage, will operate fully only after a prolonged period. This is despite the Prime Minister’s promise to launch a substantial catch-up operation in the summer. Specifically, the programme consists of facilitating schools’ access to subsidised tuition, with the offer of tutors becoming available in November 2020. This means tutors will not be present at the beginning of the year to relieve the pressure on teachers and ease children’s return to school, particularly important for those making the crucial transition to primary or secondary school.
Another component of the programme is granting schools in the most disadvantaged areas academic mentors to provide small group tuition. The government guidance is vague, stating that “some” mentors will start working from the October half-term, with this being “ramped up” in spring 2021. The justification for such delays is unclear, and may slow down efforts to prevent the disadvantage gap from expanding. Since statutory high-stakes tests will continue in the 2020-2021 academic year, this support seems meagre. It is unlikely to meet disadvantaged children’s needs before they are assessed through tests that are consequential to their future outcomes.
Such issues echo delays in other education policies targeted towards disadvantaged children in this pandemic. These include the government failing to meet its target of delivering laptops for them, and refusing, then reluctantly agreeing to extend vouchers to Free School Meal children over the summer holidays after pressure from a footballer’s campaign. The Education Secretary claimed that the “government is leaving no stone unturned in levelling up opportunities for every young person”. Yet reality reflects how their policy responses are strikingly distant from this.
Note: This article gives the views of the authors, and not the position of the Social Policy Blog, nor of the London School of Economics.