How has COVID-19 impacted education?

6th July 2020

On March 20th, schools in the UK shut their gates to all pupils except for those of key workers to help prevent the spread of COVID-19. On the whole, the closure of educational establishments has affected 82% of learners worldwide. [1] There is a specific concern for the impact that the closure of schools will have on children from disadvantaged backgrounds, who previously, were already underperforming compared to students from more fortunate backgrounds. In a survey completed online by over 4,000 parents of children aged 4–15 between Wednesday 29th April and Tuesday 12th May 2020, key trends of how children are performing at home were identified.[2]

The report found that primary and secondary school children in the UK are spending, on average, 5 hours a day on home learning. However, children from ‘better-off’ families are spending 30% more time on home learning than children from less fortunate families. Children in the top fifth of high-income families are spending on average, 5.8 hours a day on their studies. This is compared to the poorest fifth of households who are spending 4.5 hours on average. [3] If schools do not return until September, and the current rates of home learning continue, by the start of the new school year, students from more fortunate families would have completed an additional 15 days of schooling compared to less fortunate students. [4]

Not only are students from better-off families spending longer on school work. But they also have more access to learning resources, for example, private tutoring. Additionally, financial flexibility means that students from more fortunate families often have better environments to work in, whilst 58% of primary school students from the least well off families do not have access to their own study space. This will undoubtedly exacerbate the effects of educational inequalities.

The private tutoring market in the UK has experienced a dramatic increase in demand amidst this pandemic. Despite there no longer being a need for GCSE and A level tuition, as students will receive their predicted grades, the number of families seeking help with educating their children at home has accounted for and surpassed the gap. Several agencies across the world have reported that some wealthy families have requested for tutors to self-isolate with them.[5] This additional demand was a boost to Britain’s private sector, worth an estimated £2 billion.

For less fortunate families, the impact of COVID-19 on their children’s education is not one to be taken lightly. Not only do parents struggle to find time to help children with their school work, but living situations may not accommodate for distance learning. With over 13 million children in the UK currently considered to be disadvantaged, there are limitations to the accessibility of digital devices and internet access.

The government recognised the inequalities and restrictions facing less fortunate households and created a system whereby children and families could apply to borrow digital devices and 4G hotspot connectors. However, the scheme has strict criteria and is only available to care leavers, children and young people aged 0 to 19 with a social worker and disadvantaged year 10 pupils. [6] Devices were delivered in May and June.

Although the scheme offers support to a select group of disadvantaged children, there are still many disadvantaged children in the UK who will see a large impact on their education during their time away from school.  Additionally, Fewer than half of parents say that they would send their child back to school if they had the choice, but higher-income families report being more willing for their children to return to school[7]. Meaning that children struggling the most with the working from home environment could continue to struggle whilst their more fortunate classmates are back in the classroom, further widening the gap.

It’s not just children struggling to adapt to their new learning environment either, with many parents of primary and secondary school children struggling to support their children with home learning. Nearly 60% of parents of primary school children and nearly half of the parents of secondary school children say that they are finding it ‘quite’ or ‘very hard’ to support their children’s distance learning. [8]

So what about the benefits and lessons that can be learned from this unprecedented method of teaching? Like never before, the world is being forced to apply fresh thinking to a number of outdated methods, and the way children learn is one of them. The ‘lecture-based’ approach is centuries old and has been proven to not suit all children’s preferred way of learning. [9] Although this move has occurred in far from ideal circumstances, the COVID-19 pandemic has acted as a catalyst in the search for educational innovations and to align teaching with 21st-century technology.

An additional consideration, is that if educational establishments are able to effectively deliver online learning, does this make education more accessible? For many higher education students, the cost of tuition fees combined with living within proximity of your chosen university means that often, students settle for less suitable choices, or choose not to go all together. If advances in distance learning can be developed to an effective level, students can combine distance learning with face to face teaching.  This is also a consideration for students that do not have access to suitable education because of where they live. Advances in distance learning have the capability to make education accessible to a range of students who would have previously missed out.

Distance learning has many personal applications too, for example, a sudden change of circumstance or illness. Previously schools and universities were not equipped to move learning online, meaning that students who face unprecedented challenged and therefore unable to attend classes, would often fall behind.  School teaches students not only how to pass exams, but life lessons too. Schools must teach students how to make informed decisions, solve problems and above all, adaptability. For these life skills to remain a priority for students, it is essential the resilience is built into the very educational systems from which they learn from.