7. Impact of COVID-19 on the closing of the poverty-related attainment gap
The Equity Audit, published in January 2021, sought to investigate the impact that COVID-19 and resulting school building closures had on the educational experiences and attainment of children and young people, in particular those affected by poverty.
The Equity Audit comprised two complementary pieces of work – an evidence review of the emerging literature on the impact of school building closures on educational experiences in the context of pupils’ social and economic background, and 54 Scottish school case studies exploring the key themes from the evidence review namely health and wellbeing, learner experience, attainment and mitigations.
In addition to the Equity Audit, the ASF Year 5 evaluation was enhanced to include the consideration of the impact of COVID-19 on the development of approaches. The Local Authority Survey 2020 and Headteacher Survey 2020 were used in the ASF Year 5 evaluation, with respondents invited to report on each of the two key time periods (prior to COVID-19 and the period of school building closures between March and June 2020).
Educational attainment will have undoubtedly been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic in Scotland, as is the case globally; this will have had an impact on progress towards closing the poverty-related attainment gap in Scotland in recent months.
7.1 Impact on educational experiences
The evidence review showed that there were considerable differences in remote teaching provision experienced by children and young people, with variation in experience for children and young people from more and less advantaged backgrounds. The review also highlighted differences regarding teaching time/time spent learning experienced and amount of time spent on home learning between pupils from more and less advantaged backgrounds. There were also considerable differences in access to resources to support home learning in relation to children and young people from more and less advantaged backgrounds (digital resources, space to learn, parental support). Evidence pointed to the importance of access to technology for children and young people. Where there were gaps in such access – with socio-economically disadvantaged pupils most negatively affected – this had a direct impact on their learning experience and engagement.
The case study interviews highlighted that significant numbers of parents found it difficult to support their children’s learning at home and believed that this negatively impacted on children’s learning and progress.
According to the findings from the ASF Year 5 evaluation, whilst family and community engagement aspects had frequently been driven forward at pace in order to respond to the challenges created as a result of COVID-19, some planned aspects of family and community engagement had been paused or adapted as a result of the school building closures. Adaptations included the development of virtual approaches. For some, work at the local authority level progressed on a more limited level during the school building closures, whilst at the school level engagement with families and communities increased.
7.2 Impact on educational attainment and the poverty-related attainment gap
In terms of the impact of school building closures on pupils’ learning overall, there is a considerable body of evidence which has emerged to date; international evidence generally shows that school building closures are likely to have had a negative effect on pupil progress and attainment.
The Equity Audit found a number of studies that had been undertaken which specifically considered the impact of COVID-19 school building closures on socio-economically disadvantaged pupils. The literature highlighted evidence of exacerbated impacts for pupils from more disadvantaged backgrounds, pointing to increased inequality of educational attainment as a result of COVID-19 school building closures. Studies have indicated that pupils from socio-economically disadvantaged backgrounds are likely to experience a larger decline in learning compared to their more advantaged counterparts, with the suggestion that such increased inequality may persist over time.
The majority of participants in the Equity Audit case study interviews reported that the first period of remote learning had had a negative impact on the progress of most children and young people and that this varied by factor such as socio-economic status, English language proficiency, age and stage; the impact was most apparent in P1 and P2 children.
In addition, the majority of teachers reported that higher numbers of children and young people from socio-economically disadvantaged backgrounds showed regression in core literacy and numeracy skills when schools re-opened after the March-August 2020 closure of school buildings.
In terms of perceptions of the impact of COVID-19 on progress towards closing the poverty-related attainment gap, the majority (13 of 15) of local authorities who responded to the Local Authority Survey 2020 were of the view that COVID-19 had impacted on progress towards closing the poverty-related attainment gap (five indicated this to a great extent, and eight to some extent). A further two local authority respondents viewed COVID-19 as having impacted on progress to a limited extent.
Local authorities perceived a range of factors associated with COVID-19 to have impacted on progress towards closing the poverty-related attainment gap, and it was recognised that there remained a great deal of uncertainty regarding the extent of the impact. Several local authorities referenced internal data gathering exercises undertaken, which had sought to understand and quantify the impacts at the local authority level. A number pointed to emerging evidence of the impact of COVID-19 widening the gap between most and least affluent pupils at the local authority level.
In the 2020 Headteacher Survey, the great majority of schools (95%) felt that COVID-19 and school building closures had at least some impact on their progress in closing the poverty-related attainment gap. This included 61% who felt that COVID-19 and school building closures had a ‘significant impact’ on their progress. Secondary schools and those with middle to higher PEF allocations were most likely to feel that their progress had been significantly affected by COVID-19 and school building closures.
7.3 Mitigating the impact of COVID-19 on closing the poverty-related attainment gap
A number of financial and practical measures have been put in place to support education recovery. This includes additional investment to support the recruitment of additional teachers/support staff and the provision of devices and connectivity to people suffering from digital exclusion. Education Scotland has worked with stakeholders to develop the National e-Learning Offer alongside a wide range of professional learning and resources to support practitioners. The Scottish Government has implemented increased flexibility to redirect ASF to help mitigate the impacts of school building closures on the most disadvantaged families.
At a local level the most common mitigations were the provision of access to digital hardware and connectivity, and physical or paper-based resources to support remote learning.
Reference was made in the findings from the 2020 Local Authority Survey to increasing numbers of families experiencing poverty as a result of the pandemic, and of the need to put in place appropriate responses. Longer-term plans were frequently paused in order to focus on short-term priorities, but all respondents described a continuing focus on closing the poverty-related attainment gap throughout the period of school building closures. Rather, the focus was on limiting and mitigating the impact of COVID-19 on children and families affected by socio-demographic disadvantage, whilst recognising increases in socio-economic disadvantage because of COVID-19. Local authorities variously described a range of actions in order to mitigate the impact of COVID-19, including:
- adjustments, adaptations or pausing of existing activity
- altering governance and funding to respond to emerging challenges
- creating recovery plans and longer-term planning
- planning for future potential periods of school building closures, or for pupils self-isolating
- considering the provision of specialised support to address the needs of those pupils not making expected progress
- addressing digital connectivity challenges, particularly in rural areas; and
- developing practice for remote learning.
Local authority approaches during the initial stages of the pandemic developed in a range of ways. A number of local authorities had undertaken reviews to consider planned activities with decisions subsequently made to pause or progress work related to current and emerging priorities and needs. One local authority noted it had undertaken an equity audit to support future planning. Flexibility, agility and creativity were key aspects highlighted during this period of review and adaptation.
Large-scale changes were introduced in order to adapt to meet the challenges of providing remote learning, frequently ‘pivoting’ in very quick time-periods to meet the unprecedented challenges presented by responding to COVID-19 . This included the introduction of a wealth of responses, from providing physical resources (e.g. food parcels, home-learning packs), equity-related advice and information, signposting to other sources of support, as well as the continuation of face-to-face support where possible. Prioritisation of health and wellbeing support was a common theme in responses, ranging from increased pastoral support and support for mental health through to physical support such as linking up with food banks. The creation of new partnerships with other agencies in order to take this activity forward, in particular with third sector organisations, were commonly highlighted. Cross-departmental responses were also highlighted, such as joint working through social work and education.
According to the ASF Local Authority Survey findings from 2020, schools were using data to provide support during the COVID-19 pandemic. For example, a Challenge Authority described its schools’ use of data and knowledge of families to provide food to vulnerable families, signpost to sources of third sector support, welfare rights advice, identification of mental health and wellbeing issues. This provision was supported by key SFDW roles based within education hubs.
A family learning project continued to engage with 57 registered families and identified a further 516 families who required support during ‘lockdown’. Each family was assigned a Key Worker to provide advice and support with access to online classrooms, outdoor activities and active learning programmes. Activities included a forum for parents/carers to share experiences, links with wider community support, and virtual learning support with literacy, numeracy and health & wellbeing.
In the March to June 2020 period, respondents highlighted aspects of collaboration associated with the closure of school buildings and transition to remote learning. A range of new collaborations with a wider range of partners, as well as strengthened collaborations with existing partners, were identified as local authorities sought quickly to respond to the demands and needs of responding to COVID-19 , with several respondents pointing to the pace of this.
In one local authority, all programme leads were redirected to support the delivery of a blended model of in-school and at-home learning, involving digital, independent and active learning. Consideration was given to the specific requirements of children and young people with additional support needs, areas of transition and families most in need of support. Key areas of focus included engagement with partners to support a wider group of identified vulnerable children and families, an online platform of resources and activities to support parents/carers, and targeted advice for practitioners through virtual networks and webinars. An immediate increase in health and well-being concerns was identified, which led to the creation of a partnership - Vulnerable Children's Panel - a multi- agency whole systems approach, which provided bespoke packages of support ensuring that the identified needs and well-being of children and families were addressed.
One local authority sought to revisit the focus of workstream priorities and interventions to adapt to COVID-19. As a result, refocused projects were delivered during school closure which led to unexpected, new and different positive outcomes such as identifying opportunities for sustainability, leadership and improvements in professional learning. The local authority has also placed an increased emphasis on utilising performance data, developing collaboration opportunities, developing their digital strategy, and identifying the most successful interventions.
It was broadly recognised in the analytical work informing the ASF Year 5 evaluation that COVID-19 has had, and will continue to, impact on sustainability of focus to some extent. Local authority perspectives reflected on the reprioritisation which took place during the March to June 2020 period of school building closures, including a greater focus on addressing the immediate challenges of responding to COVID-19 and an increased focus on health and wellbeing. There was also a broad affirmation of sustained focus on closing the poverty-related attainment gap.