Beyond Digital: Planning for a Hybrid World Contents

Chapter 4: Education in schools

The impact of the pandemic on the use of digital technology

117.As a result of the pandemic, education for many children and young people moved abruptly online. While schools remained open for children of key workers and vulnerable children, most students had to begin to work from home. The new hybrid model, with some children learning at home and others attending school, was a suitable emergency response to the COVID pandemic, but is unlikely, and undesirable, as the long-term future of education.

118.As explained in Chapter 2, the abrupt move to home schooling has had a detrimental impact on the education of children and young people who lack digital access, adequate digital devices and a quiet space to work at home. As we discuss in more detail below, this disruption to children’s education may have a negative impact on children’s attainment, future education and future employment prospects, and will have the greatest effect on those children who are already disadvantaged. Some research suggests, for example, that more than 200,000 pupils will leave primary school this year without being able to read, an increase of 30,000 compared to the previous year.128

What we have learned

119.One of the most obvious lessons of the pandemic has been that many schools were not adequately prepared to deliver education online, and that there have been significant variations in the amount and type of learning provided. The best-resourced schools were able, from the start of the pandemic, to deliver lessons via video conferencing and offer other opportunities for ‘live’ online interaction, enabling students to speak directly to the teacher, and receive feedback, as part of the lesson.129 Other pupils have had very different experiences and had very few opportunities for communication with their teachers or with other pupils. Secondary school children spent an average of four and a half hours a day learning (a 30 per cent reduction on pre-COVID times);130 this also varies significantly between schools, with 64 per cent of private school pupils spending five or more hours a day learning, compared to 31 per cent of pupils at state-funded schools.131 This suggests that, even before taking into consideration their home-learning environment and other factors affecting their ability to learn, the opportunities to learn that have been offered to pupils have varied considerably.

120.Digital inequality, in a variety of forms, was starkly highlighted. Ask Research, for example, noted that on average, education providers thought around 30 per cent of families at their school or college had little or no IT access at home, and approximately one in three providers said that this was the case for over 35 per cent of their families.132 It went on to explain that limited IT access was reported as more of an issue by settings with higher rates of Free School Meal (FSM) eligibility (with 37 per cent of their families having limited access) than those with lower rates of FSM (22 per cent of families at these schools were felt to have limited access). While we heard limited evidence on the experiences of young people in Pupil Referral Units, witnesses suggested that existing disadvantages have been exacerbated by the pandemic. Richard Sheriff explained the difference in digital access between pupils in schools serving more privileged areas, compared to more deprived areas:

“One of the schools in my trust has 2,000 students in a well-to-do area; every single child has an iPad through an iPad scheme that we developed eight or nine years ago. We are really used to using that mode, and this has not been a challenge for those children and families.

However, another of our schools serving one of the most deprived areas in the city of Leeds says that only 30% of its families have access to broadband.”133

121.Professor Henrietta Moore also argued that the digital divide is having an uneven impact on children’s education, with those living in low-income households and with parents who do not have formal or higher education qualifications having significantly less access to, and quality of, educational resources, lower educational attainment and worse performance outcomes.134 James Turner, Chief Executive of the Sutton Trust, agreed, emphasising that the educational and attainment gap between poorer pupils and their more privileged peers has widened, and that:

“The driver seems to be that what remote learning looks like to a poor child is very different from what it looks like to their classmates: as we have heard, they struggle to access technology and the internet, they are probably less likely to have a quiet place to work, and they have parents who are probably less confident about supporting them or who are working jobs that take them out of the home.”135

122.Natalie Perera, Chief Executive of the Education Policy Institute, also highlighted that children from poorer and more disadvantaged households have less access to digital devices and a quiet place to study, they are participating in fewer hours of online learning, and they have less face-to-face online contact with teachers than their peers.136 James Turner suggested that the unequal access to home schooling during the pandemic means that for some children both the quality and the quantity of the learning that they have had during this period has been lower.137 On average, they have done fewer hours of learning, and teachers also report that the quality of, and engagement with, that work has suffered. James Turner suggested that this could have a long-term impact on children’s attainment and progression:

“Some people are saying that the gap in primary schools between a poor child and their peers is now seven months, and that has grown during the pandemic. We suspect that it is likely to be higher in secondary schools. However, this will not just affect those children’s lives for the next one or two years; it will have knock-on impacts on the skills they develop, the qualifications they get and, ultimately, the jobs that they go on to do and their chances of being socially mobile.”138

123.The Education Endowment Foundation has undertaken research which suggests that primary-age pupils have significantly lower achievement in both reading and mathematics as a result of missed learning during the pandemic.139 Even more worrying is the finding that there is a large attainment gap between disadvantaged pupils and their non-disadvantaged peers. The Foundation’s work on the impact of school closures on the attainment gap also found that:

124.Not all pupils lost out, however. Scope highlighted the benefits of online education, stating that the increase in online flexible learning has meant that young disabled people can now access learning at their own pace, access new training opportunities, and manage their disability or condition around their online studies.140 While emphasising that disabled children are not a homogenous group, Natalie Perera noted that school leaders have found that some disabled children are finding it easier to learn at home.141Natalie explained that for some children with autism and other sensory issues, being at home in a quiet and familiar environment can sometimes be easier. Margaret Mulholland, a Special Educational Needs and Disability (SEND) and inclusion specialist, agreed, noting that young people with additional needs attending mainstream schools have seen real advantages in remote learning. Margaret explained that:

“there are wonderful examples of young people now using speech-to-text devices and cameras to record their learning—lots of opportunities that may have been available in school, but young people did not like the experience of standing out and being different. That sense of difference was previously often a very excluding factor in the use of technology in school. Now, as more people are using digital strategies at home, we are hoping that they will translate back into the classroom and be transformational.”142

125.Natalie Perera explained that there are lessons to be learnt from remote schooling during the pandemic for pupils who may need to be out of school

for a prolonged period:

“they may have a mobility issue or they are having long-term treatment … we now have the infrastructure and, I would argue, the confidence to deliver some learning remotely so that we are not in a binary system of schools having to close or certain pupils not being able to attend the school and therefore learning stops entirely.”143

126.Margaret Mulholland discussed similar issues, noting that during the pandemic, the mainstream education system has learnt lessons from hospital schools and special schools where there has been a longstanding telepresence:

“A child can be in a hospital bed for six months and yet tune into a classroom and learn in an engaging and effective way. We should be taking those lessons from acute needs, putting them into mainstream contexts and saying what we can achieve from this.”144

127.Some disabled students told Scope that they struggled to participate in learning before the pandemic, as different lecturers or teachers would put up learning materials in one format, and then another in an inaccessible format, or refuse to give disabled students online copies at all.145 As a result of the pandemic, teachers and lecturers have now been forced to make learning resources available online and all in the same format. The introduction of distanced learning courses has also allowed some to participate in types of courses previously unavailable to them. Scope argued that the Government must aim to ensure that, post-pandemic, young disabled people have a choice of options about how they learn and that they are offered a mix of both face-to-face and online methods, as well as real-time learning and recordings, to suit their particular needs.

128.However, the Nottingham Centre for Children, Young People and Families suggested that young disabled people have found it difficult to engage with online interaction, particularly interacting with peers and school staff whom they were used to seeing in person.146 The Centre also highlighted that it is more difficult for children without traditional literacy or verbal communication skills to sustain interaction on-screen and recommended that when designing online education and social activities, providers should consider accessibility to disabled children, especially those who do not have traditional literacy or verbal skills.147

129.In February 2021, the Government announced a £700 million recovery support package to help children and young people catch-up on missed learning as a result of the pandemic.148 This support package will focus on expanding one-to-one and small group tutoring programmes, as well as supporting the development of disadvantaged children in early years settings, and summer provision for those pupils who need it the most. State primary and secondary schools will also be given a one-off Recovery Premium, building on the existing Pupil Premium, to use as they see best to support disadvantaged students.

130.Natalie Perera suggested that the Government has three options to mitigate the impact of lost learning and support pupils to catch-up:

“First … they could use some of the current interventions that they have, such as the pupil premium and the national tutoring programme, and turbo-charge them by adding more resources to them and accelerating their progress and reach.

The second set of options might be considered more radical and might require some changes to the school infrastructure: a longer school day; summer programmes that focus on academic and well-being support; and, for some pupils, possibly repeating the school or an academic year …

The third bucket is the most interesting, in a way, because it gets to the heart of the problem. It is taking the opportunity now to address some of the root causes of inequality, thinking about policies such as how to address child poverty and policies on early intervention and the early years, focusing resources and effort on those areas in order to prevent the disadvantage gap from opening up in the first place.”149

131.We are deeply concerned by the impact of the prolonged period of disrupted study on pupils’ educational outcomes, future education, employment opportunities and their long-term wellbeing. We note that many of our witnesses were unconvinced that the measures announced by UK Government so far are sufficient to address the scale of the problem.

132.The Government must prioritise mitigating the long-term impact of the prolonged period of disrupted learning on children’s life-chances and wellbeing. This should include undertaking research to understand the very different experiences of children from different communities, ensuring that specific funding and support is available to address the growing attainment gap between advantaged and disadvantaged pupils, and establishing a support programme focused on the wellbeing of children and young people post-pandemic. The Government must also recognise the impact that a lack of space to work from home has had on children’s learning, and ensure that this is recognised in their ‘catch-up’ plans for pupils.

Potential future uses of technology and preparing for a hybrid world

133.Parent Zone told us that many schools, even after fully re-opening, will continue to use digital platforms and tools for education.150 It explained that having invested in the necessary digital infrastructure and digital skills for their staff, schools are unlikely to revert to using physical textbooks and marking homework on paper copybooks. As a result, Parent Zone stated that it will continue to be essential for families to have a stable internet connection in their home, and for children to have access to a device to work on supported by parents who themselves have adequate support.

134.Richard Sheriff emphasised the importance of digital skills provision in the curriculum, stating that “developing digital skills… is absolutely vital.”151 Richard then went on to explain the potential that digital technology has to revolutionise teaching and education:

“One advantage you might have is from … using the medium of technology to make sure that every child has access to the great teacher who inspires you to learn about whatever it might be … then those teachers become leading personalities, not footballers or film actors but educators, because they have a digital online following. You want to be in that lesson, because it is with the teacher who does that fantastic stuff, whether it is about Shakespeare or microbiotics. That would be an amazing revolution.”152

135.Richard Sheriff also highlighted the importance of a blended approach to education, stating that some vulnerable children are finding that blended learning is working very well for them.153 Margaret Mulholland gave specific examples of pupils who could benefit from a blended approach to education, describing how a parent:

“has been sitting alongside her son to work through the day, as well as him having access to one-to-one support for his special educational needs. When he has had to get up to move around because of the difficulty he has in focusing, she has used a sound beam to make sure that the lessons follow him around the house, and he has been able to continue to engage.”154

136.Margaret had then asked the mother about their concerns for their child returning to school:

“If this had worked so well for him, how did she feel about the return to school, where he would not have autonomy and control to such a degree, and where those assisted technology resources have not been as apparent. She said that she hopes … that he and indeed teachers will feel more confident about using them, but she also recognised the social connectedness that is so valuable to his development. She feels that the opportunity to address a blended approach, a hybrid approach, of some learning at home, maybe a couple of afternoons a week, and in school would really support his learning.155

137.While Richard Sheriff highlighted the potential of a blended approach to improve educational provision, and attainment, for vulnerable pupils, Richard also emphasised the risk that schools serving privileged areas with “savvy parents” will do very well out of the blended approach, but those from more deprived areas and who do not have appropriate digital access will struggle.156

138.The pandemic has highlighted that large numbers of children do not have the internet connections, access to devices, or quiet space to be able to work effectively online from home. This does not become irrelevant when schools return: unless action is taken to address this, these children’s inability to complete online homework assignments, undertake additional study and develop the familiarity with working online that will be expected in their future working lives, will lead to an ever widening inequality between them and their more advantaged peers. Unless and until all children have access to the internet, and the skills they need to make use of digital technology, the Government cannot consider itself prepared for the hybrid world.

139.The Government should work with local authorities and schools to fund a specific support programme to ensure that all children have an adequate internet connection and suitable digital devices to work effectively online from home. It must also provide funding to ensure that teachers and schools can make the most of the benefits that an increasing role for online learning offers. The Government should ensure that the curriculum reflects the increasing need for digital skills and provides all children and young people with the skills needed for our hybrid world.

140.In common with the other areas of life considered in this report, it will be important that those who have benefitted from the rapid shift to online—in this case, young disabled people in particular—do not find the option for more flexible, digital study withdrawn once schools are able to fully reopen.

128 ‘Children’s Laureates Campaign for £100m a Year to Fix Primary School Libraries’, The Guardian (13 April 2021): [accessed 13 April 2021]

129 The Sutton Trust, Learning in Lockdown (January 2021): [accessed 13 April 2021]

130 The Institute for Fiscal Studies, ‘The crisis in lost learning calls for a massive national policy response’: [accessed 13 April 2021]

131 The Sutton Trust, Learning in Lockdown

132 Written evidence from Ask Research (LOL0026)

133 Q 114 (Richard Sheriff)

134 Written evidence from Professor Henrietta Moore (LOL0083)

135 Q 114 (James Turner)

136 Q 114 (Natalie Perera)

137 Q 114 (James Turner)

138 Ibid.

139 Education Endowment Foundation, ‘Best Evidence on Impact of School Closures on the Attainment Gap’ (2 June 2020): [accessed 3 March 2021]

140 Written evidence from Scope (LOL0094)

141 Q 114 (Natalie Perera)

142 Q 114 (Margaret Mulholland)

143 Q 116 (Natalie Perera)

144 Q 120 (Margaret Mulholland)

145 Written evidence from Scope (LOL0094)

146 Written evidence from Nottingham Centre for Children, Young People and Families (LOL0041)

147 Ibid.

148 Department for Education, Press Release: New Education Recovery Package for Children and Young People, 24 February 2021: [accessed 8 March 2021]

149 Q 121 (Natalie Perera)

150 Written evidence from Parent Zone (LOL0039)

151 Q 117 (Richard Sheriff)

152 Q 119 (Richard Sheriff)

153 Q 114 (Richard Sheriff)

154 Q 116 (Margaret Mulholland)

155 Ibid.

156 Q 116 (Richard Sheriff)

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