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Working-class communities need a much deeper response to educational inequality.

Updated: Apr 19, 2020

Within the last 24-hours the UK government has announced that they will provide free use of laptops and tablets to selected groups of ‘disadvantaged’ pupils during the coronavirus lockdown, with the aim of preventing a further widening of the educational attainment gap.

This is a welcome move and one that presents a whole host of questions.

The most immediate and obvious question…

How quickly are we going to see delivery of this equipment to those who need it the most?

Within the next week the DfE will open a portal for schools to present business cases for each individual identified as eligible and in need of this service. What isn’t clear however is how long this process will take, and when these selected pupils can hope to receive their loaned equipment. One can only hope that lessons have been learned from the recent free school meal voucher fiasco that forced so many schools into having to set up their own schemes in order to ensure that pupils had access to food during lockdown.

Indeed there are many schools up and down the country who have taken the digital divide issue into their own hands, providing tablets and laptops for those pupils who they know will struggle to work online. And where schools haven’t been able to do this, the charity sector has stepped in. At RECLAIM we have quickly managed to secure funding for 4 iPads with internet data through one of the numerous emergency funds, to send out to our young people, many of whom are in the critical KS4 stage of their educational journey.

But however long the delivery of government-funded equipment takes, it certainly won’t be in time for the launch of the online curriculum hub provided by the newly created Oak National Academy which has received a reported £300k of public funding, amongst other donations, to aid mobilisation. Set to launch tomorrow this digital resource promises the inclusion of filmed lessons for all ages, from a range of teachers across England. In addition, the DfE will also publish new guidance for parents and carers to support home-learning.

All great news if you are fortunate enough to live in a household where your parents are able to dedicate the time or cognitive capacity to support your learning, and where you would need to have the environment and equipment available to maximise the online hub and guidance. Sadly, for many working-class families this is simply not the case.

Why has it taken so long for this offer of support to finally come through?

We are already four weeks into a period in which we have seen schools close their doors to all but those children of key workers or children who are deemed vulnerable. Schools were given just 48-hours in which to provide pupils with a scheme of work that could be completed at home, and understandably most chose to do this via online platforms. It has been a ‘catch most’ solution in what are undeniably difficult circumstances.

And it is evident, through the platform of social media, that there is a large community of teachers and school leaders out there who are fearful about the impact that this approach, albeit the best that could be found in current conditions, will have on pupils in their care for whom online learning or learning at home is not a viable option. Why were the concerns of our education professionals not heard or acted upon? Have pupils and/or their families had any kind of say in all of this? Perhaps if these voices were regularly listened to, this problem could have, at the very least, been responded to in a more timely fashion?

A 2018 study from the Sutton Trust revealed that over a third of parents with children aged 5-16 reported that their child had no access to their own device (laptop, tablet etc.) on which to access the internet and online learning. Further research in the recently released ONS report: 'Exploring the UK's digital divide' found that 700,000 11-18 year-olds state having no internet access at home via a computer or tablet, with a further 60,000 having no home access to the internet at all.

With this evidence readily available, how have we gotten to a month into lockdown before any announcement has been made to acknowledge these young people whose life-chances will be disportionately affected by Covid-19 and this lapse in learning?

What do we, as a whole society, need to learn and do to ensure that we respond to the needs of every child or young person in the face of a global pandemic?

If there is one thing that Covid-19 has shown up, more than anything else, it is the structural inequality that continues to permeate our education system and which hangs in the air like an invisible contagion.

Returning to ‘normal’ will only continue to perpetuate an unfair and unjust system that prevents children and young people from working-class communities, particularly BAME or SEND pupils, from reaching their true potential and from levelling up society through their future leadership.

We HAVE to make change.

We need to listen and we need to act quickly.

If we are truly inclusive in our approach to education (and beyond) then when we are next hit by a cataclysm, we will be better equipped to provide an immediate and responsive approach that treats everyone with the same level of dignity, respect and opportunity. Any lapse in response, no matter how well-intentioned will come at a cost for those most in need of support.

We need a power shift: Nothing about us without us.

We need to value the voices of those who are most affected by crises and economic hardship - this is where we will most often find solutions. Now is the time to make sure that there are a range of voices and lived-experiences informing decision-making processes. It is no longer good enough, if it ever has been, to assume that you know what’s best without speaking to those who are most affected by your decisions.

In a time period which will no doubt be covered in future history lessons, let's take the opportunity to recognise and readjust. Now really is the time to ‘level up.’


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