• Dr Beng Huat See of Durham University

On 23 March, the UK government announced a nationwide lockdown. Schools and businesses were closed with immediate effect. The suddenness of the closure left many schools unprepared for the new reality and alternative ways to deliver their lessons were hastily conceived. Many schools resorted to online learning platforms to ensure that teaching could continue.

Concerns were immediately raised about the lack of access to online learning for our poorest children. Technological devices to support such learning, which are taken for granted by many of us, are out of reach for many of these children. There were fears that the prolonged closure of schools would further widen the attainment gap.

There are clear reasons for these concerns. Schools in the most deprived areas are less likely to have the necessary digital technology for remote teaching, and their teachers are less likely to be trained to use online platforms. The Teacher Tapp survey reported that teachers, especially those in deprived schools, were ill-prepared for distance teaching.

Nearly half of teachers in the most deprived schools reported that they did not think they could broadcast a lesson. Only 3% of teachers in the poorest schools hosted an online class, and only 4% had audio/video calls with a student. While 60% of private schools in the richest areas already have an online platform in place, the figure was 23% for the most deprived schools, according to the Sutton Trust report. Children from working class families were also less likely to take part in online lessons.

A recent survey by Durham University shows that about 60% of teachers had no previous experience in online teaching: only 59% said they were confident in using education technology tools to deliver lessons and only 47% reported being well-supported with adequate resources.

Children North East reports that some children access school work using their parents’ smartphones.

In a family with more than one child, sharing a smartphone to view online lessons or to access websites for homework can be particularly challenging. Some children do not even have a desk or writing implements at home. Although the government announced a centralised package to support some of these children, provision of laptops and tablets as well as internet access is prioritised for children in care, children with a social worker and disadvantaged children in Year 10. Even then, such provisions only came a month after the lockdown began.

But empirical evidence on the benefits of technological devices like laptops and smartphones is not clear. Randomised control trials (the most robust form of evidence) conducted in low-performing schools in deprived areas suggest that emails, text messages and phone calls about children’s assignments and performance at school are the most promising parental engagement tool that have positive effects on children’s learning (Miller et al.2017; Bergman 2015; York & Loeb).

Some even suggested better outcomes for children with lower attainment. It is possible the lack of access to iPads or computers at home may not be such a big disadvantage after all as long as schools can keep in touch with parents and inform them of work to be completed or send ideas for activities that they can use for home learning via mobile apps or text messages.

Our recent survey of over 3,000 teachers during the period of school closure shows that the majority of teachers (89%) spend up to five hours a week communicating with parents, most often by emails. Teachers have reported literally delivering schoolwork to homes for their pupils. It is the consistent and maintained contact with students that is important. According to the EEF review, it is the quality of teaching rather than the medium of delivery that is more important.

Teachers have done an excellent job and should be applauded for the work they have done under very challenging circumstances, sometimes putting themselves at risk of infection in going to school to teach the vulnerable children and those of key workers.

The real issue

However, we must not forget that the real problem for many of the poorest children is their mental health. Prolonged periods of isolation away from friends can have a negative impact on children’s psychological and physical health, and those most affected will be children living in deprived communities.

Lack of outdoor space means lack of physical activity, more screen time and irregular sleep patterns. These children are also living in households where parents’ jobs are uncertain and financial conditions are precarious.

There is an increased risk of anxiety and stress and even possible exposure to domestic violence and sexual abuse. Child protection services and safeguards for vulnerable children will be compromised with less frequent visits from social workers. For these children mental health is a real issue. Psychologists say increasing cases of depression and anxiety among children are recorded in several countries.

Post-lockdown

Post-lockdown, the Government needs to think about how teachers can be supported and better prepared and how access to vulnerable children could be maintained. The system needs to be structured so that in future, if the need for lockdown arises again, measures are in place to promote equality of access and safeguarding of children.

In the longer term, we should think about the wellbeing and mental health of pupils and staff. The UN has warned of a looming mental health crisis and urged governments to redress the historic under-investment in psychological services. The pressures of lockdown will have consequences far beyond the economic. As strategy for the national recovery is formulated, it is vital that policy and investment supports the mental health needs of both pupils and students.