In March 2021, the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee (PAC) heard evidence from a number of sources about the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on children’s education, and about the response from the Department for Education, schools and other agencies.
The ICKLE team made a contribution to the Committee’s inquiry, focusing on analysis of the data from our first round of fieldwork (autumn 2020). In this news item, we highlight some of the key findings of the Committee’s report, published on 26th May, and extend that account with reference to what we have learned so far from our own data.
Going beyond the PAC report’s key findings
The PAC report underlines the significant disruption caused to the school system by the pandemic, and the difficulties experienced across many sectors, including schools and social services, by those struggling to manage children’s education and well-being during the crisis.
Whereas the Committee’s remit covered children’s education very broadly, and does not differentiate by age-group, the ICKLE project focuses specifically on the youngest children in the school system – those moving from Reception to Year 1. These children had only been in school for a matter of a few months before the pandemic brought about a national lockdown, during which most of them were unable to go into school. It is known that transitions from one Key Stage to another, which can involve changes of location, building, teaching style and expectations, can be challenging for children to navigate successfully. The ICKLE project is investigating the impact of the disruption to schooling for this group of very young children and their caregivers, which means that our data, and therefore our analysis, are more finely tuned.
The PAC report identifies that disadvantaged children have suffered greater learning loss, and that the attainment gap between disadvantaged children and their peers will probably widen. The ICKLE data, which look at measures of progress from March to October/November 2020 against the Early Years Foundation Stage Profile (EYFSP) learning goals, also show that poorer progress was associated with lower levels of advantage.
However, a number of published reports go further, and have highlighted that learning loss is more significant in younger primary children. The ICKLE data show that significantly fewer children had achieved the EYFSP goals by the beginning of Year 1 than would normally, and the average progress in reading book levels was less than expected.
In relation to children with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND), the PAC report acknowledges that there was a particular issue with provision for those children from schools and from other relevant agencies during the early stages of the pandemic. The report states that children with special needs and disabilities, and their caregivers, experienced a lack of support, and that home learning was especially difficult for these families, due to lack of access to specialist support and equipment, and the change in their routine and the stress placed on caregivers by taking on full-time responsibility for both care and education.
In the ICKLE sample, we noted responses from families with children with SEND which corroborated the PAC’s findings. SEND status was a factor affecting progress in our sample. Caregivers had to adapt resources sent home from schools, or source materials from elsewhere, to suit their children with SEND, and the lack of specialist equipment available in homes made it difficult for children with SEND to communicate and learn remotely. However, going beyond the developmental and other factors already known to affect children’s progress in school, such as are categorised together as SEND, the ICKLE study has gathered strong evidence that the particular circumstances of each child and family can affect a child’s ability to engage in home learning and their caregivers’ ability to manage their child’s learning within the home environment. In particular, caregivers who were working from home and simultaneously responsible for home schooling found the situation extremely difficult. Furthermore, parents with more than one child at home struggled to cater to individual children, and the younger the siblings, the more challenging the situation for them. Lastly, provision between different schools varied enormously, in a number of ways which we describe in our own reports (q.v.), meaning that the experiences of children were inconsistent.
Much has been made of the importance of access to IT for children during the periods of home schooling, and unsurprisingly the PAC report notes that not having access to IT has impacted most negatively on vulnerable and disadvantaged children. Furthermore, the presence of more than one child in disadvantaged households has meant that even those households with some kind of device for home learning have struggled to enable all the children to engage with learning; the Department’s response was that children entitled to free school meals would receive a device each.
However, our data show clearly that access to IT is not a panacea. The very youngest children, such as those in the ICKLE study, need more than a device if they are to engage successfully with learning. They need attention, stimulation, direction and support, whether from peers, siblings or adults. Their attention span is short, their level of concentration can wane very quickly, and their acceptance of parent-as-teacher was not always forthcoming. Caregivers, suddenly thrust into positions of responsibility for their children’s education, often expressed frustration at their own sense of inadequacy and their feelings of being under pressure to keep their children calm, happy and busy; for many in the ICKLE study, the children’s well-being and the happiness and stability of the family unit took priority over completing, or even engaging in, tasks set by school.
The PAC report makes recommendations on how to close the learning gap for disadvantaged children, as previously defined by socio-economic status. The ICKLE study has shown that home learning created new inequalities which need to be taken into account. Different groups of children have become disadvantaged during the pandemic, including, for example, children who may have previously been considered advantaged, such as those with two working parents who could work from home. Families in this category may have found that they were struggling to juggle work, childcare and home schooling, all within the four walls of the home, feeling unable to fulfill any of those roles successfully.
In terms of recommendations, the PAC report focuses on closing the learning gap for disadvantaged children – but this could risk ignoring those children who became newly disadvantaged during home learning. Our ICKLE analysis suggests that schools also need to identify children who would have made good progress, had they been in school, but who were less able to engage in home learning, perhaps because of their own disposition in the changed circumstances, or perhaps because of their caregivers’ and/or family circumstances.
The ICKLE project has made more specific recommendation for younger pupils. We recommend that, in the event of future school disruption, the Department for Education should support schools to facilitate home learning by suggesting a range of differentiated approaches and activities to develop specific learning objectives across the curriculum areas, and work with families, helping them to understand what the resources and tasks are designed to achieve, since there may be several different ways of achieving those objectives.
According to the PAC report, the Department for Education says its handling of school disruption in the early months of 2021 was better than its approach in spring 2020. Data from the second phase of the ICKLE study, which is currently underway, will enable us to assess whether school provision changed, and how this affected home learning and children’s progress.