By Stuart Hall and Kevin Lowden
As part of the response to the COVID-19 pandemic the Scottish Government closed school buildings in Scotland toward the end of February 2020 for three months.
Most local authorities kept some schools open to provide day care for the children of keyworkers and for other families with additional support requirements. For the vast majority of pupils, the expectation was for them to remain at home and engage with online school lessons/work.
The nature, quality and amount of this online education varied from authority to authority and from school to school. In some authorities there was little expectation for pupils to engage with any online material while in others there was a more robust online offering.
‘Little in the way of meaningful education’
However, what became clear was that large numbers of pupils had no contact with schools or online schoolwork over the three-month lockdown period. When the lockdown period ended with the start of the summer school break, the result was many young people had experienced little in the way of meaningful education for almost five months.
Focusing on the lockdown period it was soon clear that many pupils were unable to access the online resources as a result of no or low bandwidth internet connection at home. It was also evident that many pupils lacked access to the necessary hardware (tablets, PCs) at home and, in some instances, where they did have hardware and internet access at home this had to be shared with their siblings and/or parents.
Some local authorities and schools made strenuous efforts to distribute hardware to pupils to allow them to access online resources. Despite these efforts, many pupils could only access the internet via their mobile phones, so this introduced additional issues associated with connection costs and limitations imposed through the physically small screen on many mobile devices.
For many educationalists the net result of this situation was a widening of the gap, particularly for those young people from less affluent families and communities who were less able to access the online educational resources.
When the pandemic resurged in the autumn of 2020 and spiralling numbers of people were admitted to hospital, the Scottish Government imposed strict regulations across the majority of the country again. School buildings did not reopen after the festive break and pupils were again expected to access education from home.
However, this time there are important differences from the previous period of school closures. Across many local authorities, most schools have remained open in a limited capacity. Children of key workers are still able to access schools although this time they are being ‘taught’ in classrooms by teachers rather than just being ‘looked after’ as was the case in the previous lockdown.
Moreover, many schools are broadcasting these lessons live on the internet for all other pupils to access. Further, it is expected that as the growing vaccination programme begins to reduce the pressure on the NHS and the infections rates fall, pupils will return to school in a blended form from mid February/early March. Some of their learning will be online at home and some in a school classroom.
Alongside these developments, local authorities purchased many additional tablets and laptops to allow more of their young people to access the internet online at home. Additionally, many young people were also supplied with the necessary ‘dongles’ to allow them to access the internet directly without the need for home internet connections. While these developments are welcome, it is also the case that the demand for hardware and internet connections continues to outstrip supply and the net result is that many pupils will still be unable to take advantage of the online teaching sessions.
For educationalists and educational researchers, it remains to be seen what the longer-term results of this learning loss will be. What we can be sure of is that the disruption to education experienced in Scotland over the pandemic will have done nothing to ‘close the gap’ in educational outcomes experienced by less affluent pupils compared to their more affluent classmates.
Indeed, the expectation is that any improvements in educational outcomes experienced by less affluent pupils will have been reversed over this period. The challenge for the Scottish Education system is how to best support these pupils over the next few months to reduce the differential impact of the virus on pupil outcomes.
Further, while we have witnessed positive developments in the response of the education system to the earlier and current school closures, we need to ensure robust plans are in place should we experience a similar pandemic.
Stuart Hall and Kevin Lowden are senior educational researchers with the Network for Social and Educational Equity.