With schools again closed, disadvantaged children need laptops and internet connections to access remote education. Parents can support home learning by making their children’s wellbeing the priority and focusing on the quality of learning experiences, not the quantity.
In January 2021, schools in the UK have again switched to online learning for most children, due to the resurgence of Covid-19 across the country. Consequently, there is a renewed emphasis on ensuring that children receive the best possible education while staying at home.
There are concerns that the impact of further school closures will disproportionately affect some children, such as those from lower socio-economic backgrounds (Eyles and Elliot Major, 2021). Data from before Covid-19 show that mothers’ education is strongly associated with increased parental investments in educational resources, such as toys and books in the home, and higher family income. These factors are significantly associated with children’s academic outcomes (Macmillan and Tominey, 2019).
During the pandemic, families with lower incomes are also more likely to face challenges providing their children with a high-quality learning environment for reasons including less physical space, less access to computers, and slower and less reliable internet connectivity.
While some of these challenges are especially difficult to overcome, such as limited physical space, policy-makers should be doing all they can to take action where possible, notably ensuring that all children have access to suitable laptop computers and a reliable internet connection that allows them to engage effectively with online learning resources and virtual lessons that schools are now required to provide.
Families are also facing unprecedented challenges with balancing children’s schoolwork alongside the demands of parents’ jobs and other stresses related to the pandemic. Consequently, parents should be assured that they are providing a good quality home learning environment by looking after their children’s wellbeing, providing access to a broad range of resources, and focusing on quality, rather than quantity.
What should policy-makers do?
Statistics from a representative survey conducted online of families with school-aged children in England during the pandemic emphasise a ‘digital divide’ in access to technological devices for home learning. Results show that around 15% of primary school-aged children and 20% of secondary school-aged children in the poorest third of families, based on household income, have no access to a computer or tablet device for schoolwork, compared with approximately 5-10% of children in the richest third of families (Institute for Fiscal Studies, IFS, 2020).
Similar survey data on teachers show only 10% reporting that all their pupils have access to the internet. This figure varies significantly by pupil background, with 5% of state school teachers reporting that all their children have access to the internet, compared with 51% of private school teachers (Sutton Trust, 2021). These data collected via teachers can be considered a more reliable estimate of children’s internet access, as many family surveys are conducted online and may therefore be unintentionally biased to households with adequate resources already in place.
To date, the government has failed to ensure that all children, regardless of their background, have access to the appropriate technology resources to engage with online learning. In April 2020, in response to the first lockdown, the Department for Education announced a £85 million rollout of 200,000 laptops for disadvantaged children to support learning from home. This figure falls short of the 540,000 children calculated to be eligible for the scheme by the Office of the Children’s Commissioner based on the Department for Education’s published criteria.
Moreover, by mid-June 2020, only 115,000 devices had been delivered to local authorities or academy trusts for distribution to children (IFS, 2020). This implies that only 21% of disadvantaged children were provided with access to the technological support that they need to learn from home by this point. Little progress has been made since then, with widespread reports from schools of failures from the government in meeting their proposed targets.
During the current lockdown, the Department for Education announced further laptop provision aiming to reach more than one million children and young people by April 2021. But this still leaves substantial time during which some disadvantaged children will not be able to access resources, with the risk that these children will fall further behind. To ensure that children are able to access the remote learning that schools are providing, regardless of their background, it is imperative that these targets are met efficiently and effectively.
Providing access to a reliable internet connection also remains an unresolved issue. According to current Department for Education guidance, disadvantaged families may be able to access increases in mobile data, free of charge, if they are customers of selected telecoms providers and must request access via their school or local authority.
Critics argue that this approach increases the administration burden for schools and suggest that universal zero-ratings for educational content, such as Oak National Academy, would be more effective than making disadvantaged families ask for handouts. Internet providers have since highlighted challenges of zero-rating educational resources, as content is often hosted on external sources, such as YouTube.
Regardless of these challenges, children still need to access online learning if the negative effects of the pandemic on their education are to be mitigated. Policy-makers should be taking the lead on co-ordinating effective action in ensuring that all children, regardless of their background, have equitable and reliable access to learning at home.
What can parents do?
Research carried out during the first lockdown in England found that children spent, on average, 4.5 hours a day on educational activities, including online classes, other schoolwork, private tutoring and other educational activities. This is a 25% reduction in learning time for primary school pupils and a 30% reduction for secondary school pupils compared with children’s usual routine, as measured using comparable data from 2014/15 (IFS, 2020).
Another nationally representative survey highlights that 81% of children with limited access to appropriate technology and study space, and 52% of those eligible for pupil premium funding, are less engaged in remote learning, compared with their classmates (National Foundation for Educational Research, NFER, 2020).
Nevertheless, working parents, particularly mothers, report that the home schooling that did occur during the first lockdown placed significant demands on their time, as they attempt to achieve a balance between work and supporting their children’s learning (Doyle, 2020; Anders et al, 2020). Overall, these data suggest that the school closures during lockdown may widen educational inequalities, based on who can access the educational resources and parental support that they need for home learning.
Given such time pressures and the stressful context that lockdown can bring, it is important for parents to make a priority of their children’s wellbeing and focus on the quality of home learning experiences and interactions, rather than worrying about a shortfall in quantity.
For parents who now find themselves taking on the role of teachers, it is important to focus on children’s mental health and wellbeing, as studies show their fundamental importance for learning and development (Panayiotou et al, 2019).
Recommendations from the Child Mind Institute suggest the idea of a ‘developmental checklist’, which includes questions such as: ‘is my child sleeping enough and eating a somewhat balanced diet?’; ‘are they getting some form of exercise every day?’; ‘are they getting some quality time with family?’; and ‘do they use some screen time to keep in touch with friends?’. Establishing and keeping a daily routine that meets the needs of an individual family is also recommended best practice.
Several other organisations – such as Oak National Academy, the National Literacy Trust, the Children’s Commissioner and Emerging Minds – also have useful and evidence-based online resources to support parents and their children during the pandemic.
There are also several key areas where parents might focus their efforts to enrich learning experiences for their children at home, mindful of their own time constraints. For example, educational apps can benefit children’s learning outcomes (Griffith et al, 2020; Madigan et al, 2020): educational technologies that are ‘gamified’ and child-centred are also particularly beneficial, especially for children’s motivation and enjoyment (Lai and Bower, 2019).
Research also shows that children can successfully use educational apps independently (Outhwaite et al, 2019) and so may be a useful tool when parents need to focus on other things. In terms of when and where parents can provide support, some studies highlight that co-viewing technology-based content with young children is beneficial, (Madigan et al, 2020), especially if children are still developing their language skills (Outhwaite et al, 2020).
While there are many school and technology-based solutions, parents should also remember that home learning does not always have to be working through a worksheet or engaging with an educational app. Research shows informal, everyday learning experiences also significantly benefit young children, in terms of their conceptual knowledge and language skills. Such activities include cooking and playing card or board games for maths (Zhang et al, 2020), and reading together, writing postcards and notes, such as shopping lists, for reading and writing (Meyer et al, 2017).
For older children, reading a broad range of texts, including fiction books may also be good for improving their future educational outcomes (Jerrim and Moss, 2018). In terms of downtime, parents should not worry if their children like to spend time on computer games as there is evidence that some games can support their spatial and mathematical abilities (Bos et al, 2014). They can also support children’s wellbeing and feeling of connection with their peers, which is particularly important when they are unable to spend time together in person (Johannes et al, 2020).
Home learning during Covid-19 remains a challenge for all involved. It is imperative that policy-makers deliver on their provision of laptop computers and take a lead on providing reliable internet access for disadvantaged children. This will ensure that all children, regardless of their background, have equitable access to online learning resources and the virtual lessons that schools are now required to provide.
Parents can also support their children by making a priority of their own and their children’s wellbeing and by not stressing about the small things – learning is important, but school is about so much more than maths and reading, and this can be reflected in their home experiences.
Where can I find out more?
- Family time use and home learning during the Covid-19 lockdown: Alison Andrew and colleagues at the Institute of Fiscal Studies present nationally representative survey data on how home learning worked in practice during April-June 2020.
- Remote learning: the digital divide: The Sutton Trust reports survey data from teachers outlining the digital divide in the UK, highlighting the challenges faced by disadvantaged children.
Who are experts on this question?
- Laura Outhwaite, Centre for Education Policy and Equalising Opportunities, UCL, London
- Lindsey Macmillan, Centre for Education Policy and Equalising Opportunities, UCL, London
- Jake Anders, Centre for Education Policy and Equalising Opportunities, UCL, London
- Jo Van Herwegen, Centre for Education Policy and Equalising Opportunities, UCL, London