Chief Executive’s Letter: School closures - the disadvantage gap may widen, but there are practical steps we can take to minimise it

The challenges posed by the Covid-19 pandemic are truly unprecedented and in closing schools, the government has – quite rightly – taken drastic steps to control the outbreak. 

It is not a decision that will have been taken lightly and I welcome the Department for Education’s commitment to ensuring there will still be provision for the most vulnerable children, as well as a free school meals voucher system.

We should, however, be under no illusions about the potentially devastating impact that the combination of economic hardship and school closures will have on the poorest children and young people in our society.

The needs of these children will be front-of-mind for teachers across the country and the past few days have brought home to us exactly why our schools are often referred to as the ‘fourth emergency service’.

Schools don’t just educate pupils, they care for them in a whole range of ways – feeding, safeguarding, enriching – and, though the whole sector will do its best to support those families least able to cope, there will be challenges to reach all that need help. And especially, given the urgent impetus to ensure that pupils are fed and looked after, there will be a need to ensure that a focus on supporting the learning of pupils from disadvantaged families is kept firmly in sight.

We already live in a world where the majority of all 18 year-olds who have been eligible for free school meals leave education without a good standard of recognised qualifications in English and maths – qualifications which are prerequisites for progressing into secure, good quality employment, or further study.

It’s vital, then, that as a society we do all we can to alleviate this impact.

In the immediate term, there are some fundamentals, such as supporting national and local efforts to make sure the most vulnerable families know where to get help. Every headteacher will know who you are particularly worried about – which families have young carers, or parents without good English – and who might not qualify for statutory support. There is a lot of assistance available and schools will continue to play a vital role in ensuring families know where to go to for help.

I know that school leaders are, rightly and commendably, prioritising the well-being of their students and staff and ensuring – to the best extent that they can – that learning continues. But let us be clear: we know that children learn less when they are not in school.

As a starting point, the evidence on summer learning loss can be used to help us understand the likely impact of school closures. We know this affects all children, but poor children most of all. The attainment gap will almost certainly widen when children are not in school.

On the more optimistic side, there are practical steps we can take to minimise the size of the gaps that may open up. By providing opportunities for children to access support from their teachers online – and potentially a wider network of tutors – and by ensuring that this support is available to all children.

Of course, this is much easier said than done. It is very hard to reproduce the crucial learning relationships between teachers and pupils that exist in the classroom. 

As the schools involved in the Education Endowment Foundation’s research projects have found, it is much more difficult than simply providing children with a set of materials or videos and letting them get on with it. To be effective, online learning requires on-going involvement from teachers, focusing particularly on the most disadvantaged.

It is also essential that parents have advice about their role. This isn’t about parents replacing the teacher. It’s about encouraging parents to help their children create regular routines and study habits, offering practical steps to take – and above all communicating with parents effectively over the coming months.

The Education Endowment Foundation has published a number of relevant guidance reports – in particular, Working with Parents to Support Children’s Learning – which have a lot of relevant advice on this. It highlights, for example, the use that many evidence-based programmes make of weekly text messages which can prompt conversations about learning at home and provide parents with tips or information about their children’s learning.

Over the coming days and weeks, the EEF will be prioritising our work to assemble as many practical tools and resources as we can to support schools in putting these recommendations to good use. We know that the risk of schools being flooded with well-intentioned advice is great at this time, so we’ll be working with others to coordinate our efforts and combine resources where it makes sense to do so.

Finally – and hard as it is in the eye of the storm to think longer term – we will be working across the system to build the evidence for how to best to help pupils bounce back when schools open again. Catch-up teaching targeted especially at those who have fallen furthest behind during this period will be essential.

The last few days have brought home to me once again the extraordinary resilience of our teachers and schools. All of us that work to support you in your efforts need to stand shoulder-to-shoulder – and make sure you have the tools you need not just in the days ahead, but in the years to come as well.