Supporting Disadvantaged Pupils Through COVID-19 and Beyond: Key Takeaways from a Discussion with Experts

IG Schools recently spoke with Sonia Blandford, Founder and CEO of Achievement for All, and Tony McAleavy, Research Director at Education Development Trust, about the impact of COVID-19 on disadvantaged pupils, in the UK and globally, and examined ways of providing enhanced support for these pupils.

You can watch or listen to the full discussion on-demand now by clicking here or read on for the key takeaways from the webinar.


What are the key issues schools and colleges are dealing with?

Sonia raised some key issues that many education leaders and facilitators will be facing around digital literacy and access to digital technology. Pupils from a disadvantaged background are more likely to lack access to connectivity and platforms required to engage with teachers and school support staff, both to learn and to encourage good wellbeing, at a time when this help is needed more than ever before.

But COVID-19 has also negatively impacted wider opportunities for connectivity and support within local communities, which as Sonia highlighted is often crucial for the development of children and young people from disadvantaged backgrounds. Its more important than ever for schools to help facilitate a culture of keeping in touch, knowing what their pupils have, and what they need.

This is not only the case from an academic perspective, or even general wellbeing, but some pupils will be struggling to have their basic needs met during this time, for example missing out on the opportunity to enjoy regular free school meals. While provisions have been put in place to encourage access to these, Sonia gave an example of a school that had contacted her in recent weeks, concerned that they were facing “125 families that simply weren't going to have food for the weekend.” School leaders are facing unprecedented challenges that boil down to ensuring the most basic of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs are met, and as Sonia highlighted, community connectivity is vital to guarantee this.

Tony reiterated that these challenges are mirrored across the world, especially where the intersections of disadvantage become more poignant, across lines of poverty, disability, gender and ethnicity. There have also been debates and discussions about the appropriateness of online provisions for children with SEND, and how to make these activities more accessible. In addition, the need to ensure access to actual devices, and facilitate digital literacy, is key to success but remains an ongoing challenge.

How can schools work to overcome these challenges?

Tony took several opportunities to highlight the benefits of "role specificity" in dealing with COVID-19 as a school, especially when planning how best to support less advantaged pupils. Role specificity is about really drilling down to the needs of individuals, tracking their progress by ensuring adequate data collection points are in place, and connecting with families, care givers and agencies working alongside schools to support pupils. Each staff member must understand their tasks and responsibilities, and how these fit into wider efforts. This is something the centralised French education system has been really concentrating on.

Mapping access to technology and understanding digital needs is also really useful to help inform ongoing efforts to deliver online learning and plan for catch-up lessons. In South Korea for example, Tony explained how every single child was “audited” by their school to find out what online access they had, what devices they were able to use, and the appropriateness of provisions for each pupil was assessed against this information.

Sonia also mentioned that Achievement for All is regularly in contact with a number of schools in South Korea to take lessons from their approaches to catch-up activities, given that schools there are a few weeks ahead of the UK in planning and implementing these. She reiterated how access to digital technology and supporting technological and community connectivity through this time is at the centre of required efforts.

Contacting and connecting with families, especially those that are hard to reach, is really important for ensuring quality provision for disadvantaged pupils during COVID-19 and beyond.

How can schools encourage engagement with catch-up activities?

Tony used an example of an article by a headteacher he’d read in a French newspaper recently to explain that often disadvantaged pupils are already less engaged with learning and school activities, and in many cases the COVID-19 lockdown period may have served to enhance that, despite the school hubs having remained open throughout this year in the UK. As such, schools need to ensure that parents and carers understand the value of the catch-up offer provided in different schools as well as nationally, and know what is on offer and where.

Tony also encouraged educators to make catch-up activities as rich and varied as possible, to create a new and fun experience for pupils, and “not just a crash course in literacy and numeracy learning.” This will look different in different countries, and communities, but there is a lot to be learned from each other. While the UK is emphasising tuition through the £1 billion education funding package, supported by notable research from the Education Endowment Foundation, France is spending 200 million giving disadvantaged pupils a week-long “learning holiday”, encompassing academic sessions but also, perhaps more importantly, opportunities for social interactions and activities to encourage positive wellbeing.

Sonia highlighted the range of activities Achievement for All have created to reinforce confidence in young people’s ability to learn, and all of these resources can be found here along with the full webinar recording. The activities they’ve put together are not only for teachers and children, but for parents and carers as well, both to help schools reach out to families, but also because families themselves are looking for answers, and often want to know how they can help.

Sonia also discussed opportunities for street games as an additional way of teaching and learning, especially through the catch-up period. Initiatives such as these will not only support academic progression, but also social interaction, helping to reignite community connectivity. Celebrating even the smallest learning achievements is something Sonia is very keen to promote.  

What can school leaders be doing now to prepare for the next academic year?

Linking back to the importance of data collection, Tony highlighted the importance of thinking about, and even trying to measure, the psychological damage and impact on wellbeing of this difficult period, as well as the academic loss that pupils will have suffered. The negative impact on mental and physical health will have long term implications for many, as Sonia reiterated, especially for Looked After Children, and schools need to understand this.

Both Tony and Sonia also explored the likelihood of high levels of anxiety, not only in relation to safety around COVID-19, and the need to catch-up on learning, but also because moving into a new year group is already a time of transition that can ignite a sense of anxiety for many. Schools should be thinking now about how they will manage these concerns, and be proactive in reassuring pupils and families, to help minimise the risk of absenteeism come September.

In addition, safeguarding issues that are likely to have arisen, or increased, during this time is something schools should be prepared to deal with the fallout from when they re-open. Tony discussed the lessons learned from the Ebola outbreak in Sierra Leone, and how when schools re-opened they experienced high levels of absenteeism among girls, largely due to the abuse and violence experienced by this group during the school closure period.

Schools also of course need to be extremely agile in the coming weeks and months, planning for different scenarios and the likely need for a blended learning approach. This will not only require more tech-focused CPD for teachers, as they explore how to better utilise various digital platforms, but must also play into school re-opening plans. Tony explained how many plans in countries across the world are focusing so heavily on the health protocols for re-opening, that the key questions and planning for actual learning are not being covered in enough detail.

Where can schools find further information and support?

As mentioned, all the resources put together and mentioned by Sonia in the discussion and be found here together with the full recording.

Tony highlighted some useful information collated by the World Bank, which can be found here, as well as research by the Education Development Trust on reaching disadvantaged pupils during this time, which you can find here.

The Oak National Academy is providing a full curriculum of online lessons for schools in the UK, though this is also accessible around the world, and you can find out more about accessing these resources and making best use of them here.

This article was written by Lauren Powell, Portfolio Lead, IG Schools


Find more interviews with sector experts plus guidance and resources for remote teaching on learning on the IG Schools Blog.

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