Publication - Impact assessment

Coronavirus (COVID-19): impact of school building closures - equity audit

Published: 13 Jan 2021
From:
Deputy First Minister
Directorate:
Learning Directorate
Part of:
Coronavirus in Scotland, Education
ISBN:
9781800044920

The report includes a synthesis of key local, national and international literature, supplemented with local evidence gathered from 54 schools across Scotland. The findings help deepen our understanding of the impact the pandemic has had on children from disadvantaged backgrounds.

Coronavirus (COVID-19): impact of school building closures - equity audit
Section 3 - Phase 2 – Survey of Schools

Section 3 - Phase 2 – Survey of Schools

During the period of 2 November – 20 November 2020, Attainment Advisors (AAs) and local authority Scottish Attainment Challenge project leads worked collaboratively to collect data from 54 schools across 32 local authorities. The sampling methodology was designed to account for factors including urban/rural, socio-economic deprivation and ethnicity and may be found in Annex B. The participant demographics are highlighted in Annex C.

Five participant groups were identified for interview. These were:

  • Children and young people
  • Parents
  • Headteachers
  • Practitioners
  • Partners organisations

All participant groups were asked questions relating to the four themes which had emerged from the Phase One Rapid Evidence Review of literature. These were health and wellbeing, learner experience, attainment, and mitigations. The structure of findings below follow these themes.

3.1 Health and wellbeing

The COVID-19 pandemic ushered in unprecedented changes for all children and young people in terms of their daily lives, routines, and learning. At the outset of the crisis, local authorities and schools across Scotland were proactive in addressing the needs of their children and families. The education system was quickly galvanised to ensure children and young people were safe and nourished.

As the period of school building closures moved from weeks into months the scale of the challenge increased. This resulted in some significant variation in children and young people’s experiences and subsequent variable impact on their learning and wellbeing. COVID-19 restrictions initiated a period of remote learning and school building closures, which most school staff and parents identified as a catalyst for an increase in mental health concerns amongst children and young people. School staff also reported a sense that children and young people’s physical wellbeing had suffered. Socio-economically disadvantaged children and young people were identified as being at significantly higher risk of being adversely affected by both mental and physical health concerns. Other issues which were identified more widely for children and young people were developmental and behavioural concerns, interrupted school transitions and the loss of socialisation with friends.

Mental Health

Most school staff and partners identified an increase in mental health concerns amongst children and young people during the initial period of remote learning. Children and young people noted feelings of isolation, low mood, stress, poor concentration, financial worries and concerns about the virus and the health of family members. Vulnerable children were particularly affected and a few children and young people who were experiencing socio-economic disadvantage struggled initially to get into a routine. This was challenging for them and their parents. Several vulnerable young people said the main challenge to their mental wellbeing had come from losing their usual routine and the immediate access to support available in school.

In a few schools, staff recognised that some children and their mothers were socially isolated during the period of remote learning. In a few schools, staff reported concerns about increased anxiety and levels of poverty, as well as the impact of social isolation. A few teachers reported that the health and wellbeing of children in receipt of free school meals had been disproportionately affected by school building closures and that they were concerned about the long-term effects. The majority of staff expressed the view that the COVID-19 pandemic brought children and families who required further support to the fore.

Partners who support aspects of wellbeing talked about an increased need for support for children and young people and families. They reported that they adapted quickly and new methods of support were put in place. Partners and headteachers reported that the number of contacts with social work services regarding wellbeing concerns had increased. Many schools were proactive during the period of remote learning, providing support such as weekly group sessions online, play therapy and skills academy groups for the most socio-economically disadvantaged children and young people. Schools are more aware of increased mental health issues for some parents as a result of the pandemic. Just under half of teachers reported improved relationships with families as a result of the enhanced support and communication during the school building closure period. In these cases, parents valued the care shown and recognised that relationships between home and school have improved as a result of the increased contact.

Most school staff reported that mental health has been a major focus since the return to school buildings. A few headteachers have raised this as a significant concern with notable rises in the need for counsellors and mentors and increased referrals to support children and young people with issues of anxiety. Staff reported that some young people remained concerned that they may transmit the virus to their families.

“I worried that I’d never get back to school.” (Pupil)

Most schools reported that the focus on wellbeing on return to school buildings has helped children and young people to settle back into school life and routines during the recovery period. Some schools reported that they are revisiting and reprioritising school values and nurturing approaches, with a few noting a considerable increase in requests from teachers for nurture assessments to support children in primary schools.

The majority of schools used Pupil Equity Funding (PEF) to provide resources and additional staffing. Examples included nurture groups in secondary settings and one school appointed a Senior Development Officer whose remit is to ensure wellbeing is prioritised, with daily check-ins for identified children and young people. Many schools continue to allocate increased resources in the area of mental health. This includes commercially available packages and professional learning, local authority professional learning and support, and additional staffing. The majority of schools have carried out surveys to identify what support is needed in the recovery period for their children and young people. This led in many cases to additional professional learning for staff on nurture and trauma-informed practice.

“During the day my child seems fine but even now he gets more anxious when he is home after school, I think he has time to process the day. I think a lot needs to happen nationally to support the class of 2020 to get them back on track or to recognise that they have had a difficult experience.” (Parent of P6 Pupil)

“I think I ran through different emotions, like being on a roller-coaster … but locked indoors.’ (Pupil)

Physical Health

Most schools staff, partners and parents reported a sense that children and young people’s physical wellbeing suffered as a result of the period of remote learning. A few parents emphasised the significant impact remote learning had on their children’s physical health. Some examples include significant weight loss due to increased anxiety, loss of all routines, and in a few individual cases, a regression in toileting habits. A minority of schools reported specific physical health concerns around COVID-19. Where schools have created bespoke arrangements for children and young people, parents reported a lessening of their children’s anxiety.

“School is not just a place to learn but it’s a place that he [parent’s son] is nurtured and cared for. School is a big part of our family.” (Parent)

A few staff mentioned some children and young people had no access to dentists, with one school reporting an increase in dental problems for a few children upon returning to school. Another school reported that they had linked some children and young people with the school nurse where necessary and teachers had called parents to let them know they could now make appointments with dentists again.

A few schools reported that a small number of children and young people affected by socio-economic disadvantage had gained weight throughout the period of remote learning. In a few schools, teachers noted that for the majority of children, fitness levels had noticeably declined. Examples of this include schools where families live in high-rise flats, so had limited access to greenspace or a garden. Where schools provided outdoor learning tasks, parents and children and young people were positive about the physical health benefits.

“At school I was more active… because I live in a flat I couldn’t be as active.” (P7 Pupil)

“I became very lazy, not getting up until mid-morning, playing Fortnite most of the day – I put on weight during lockdown as I was not active as much as I was in school.” (P5 Pupil)

Children and young people missed participating in clubs and activities during the period of school building closures. Schools and partners made efforts to secure funding where necessary to enable children and young people affected by socio-economic disadvantage to attend sports sessions. Schools reported that they provided exercises and activities for children and young people to take part in during the period of school building closures, with a majority signposting online PE classes as a useful resource. However, these were not accessed by all children and young people. In contrast, some children and young people reported increased levels of activity during the period of remote learning.

Developmental aspects and transitions

In a few schools, staff reported that a minority of children have experienced some developmental delays and behavioural challenges since the return to school buildings. Emerging maladaptive behaviours in a few children have been attributed to the impact of a decrease in parental income and loss of jobs, as well as continued restrictions to group activities and lack of opportunities to socialise with peers out with school.

Since returning to school buildings, some children and young people have struggled to re-establish relationships. In one example, a school noted that this was particularly prevalent in younger children. A few children and young people have required bespoke support to help them settle back into school, for example, more assistance to help them interact with peers. A few schools reported specific issues around children and young people’s confidence upon returning to school. In one example, teachers reported that as a result of experiencing distressing life events, a few children and young people were not yet ready to learn; they had forgotten routines and were worried about what was happening at home.

Almost all teachers highlighted the impact on children and young people of the lack of the ‘normal’ transition into the next stage of learning. Schools employed a wide variety of actions to enable children and young people to access a transition experience. Examples include virtual transition activities for children in Primary 7 as well as online activities for those who were particularly anxious about returning to school buildings. Schools also reported that they managed to successfully adapt several existing face-to-face events such as Primary 1 ‘Tea and Tissues’ for new parents.

Missing friends

Children and young people reported missing the social aspect of school and the daily interactions with friends and teachers. Most school staff and parents highlighted missing friends and feelings of isolation as significant issues for children and young people. In their view this had a direct impact on wellbeing, making children and young people feel angry, lonely and sad.

Examples include one instance where children reported that they didn’t have anyone their own age to talk to and another where children and young people in Gaelic Medium Education felt isolated as they had no-one to speak Gaelic with at home. In mitigation, staff in some schools encouraged attendance in community hubs.

“I am lucky I have a garden and a brother, but he is not like a friend. I wanted a friend beside me.” (P7 Pupil)

The impact was lessened when children and young people were able to use digital platforms to remain in contact with their friends. For children and young people for whom connectivity was an issue, there were increased feelings of social isolation. A minority of schools would have welcomed more interaction on video chats/Teams/Zoom. Children and young people and parents from most schools felt it would have been better if the video function on social media platforms had been accessible to allow them to see and interact with their teachers and friends.

“I was worried I wouldn’t see friends, it made it more boring … missing friends was the biggest thing for me’.” (Secondary Pupil)

A majority of schools reported that most children and young people were happier now they were back at school with their friends and peers. Many children and young people mentioned that they are pleased to be back in school buildings, enjoying a return to a more structured day.

3.2 Learner Experiences

Preparing for school building closures

All participants recognised that significant changes took place to learning and teaching experiences during the period of school building closures. A key feature arising from the data was that schools were able to support learning well if they had been proactive in taking steps to prepare. There were many examples of this happening effectively. These included school leadership teams checking with all families to see if practical support was needed with access to devices or internet at home, and working to upskill teachers in the appropriate use of digital platforms.

Class teachers supported children and young people to prepare for remote learning by supplying materials where needed. Paper-based remote learning packs were available from almost all schools. One interesting approach, taken in a COVID-19-safe way, before school buildings closed, was ‘Tea, Toast & Talk’ face-to-face sessions held for different parent groups at a school which had a high proportion of children speaking English as an additional language. Translators were used to explain not only school arrangements but also the Scottish Government’s expectations ahead of school building closure. Another headteacher brought together their Senior Leadership Team and Pupil Support Team to identify their most vulnerable young people, including those who are care experienced. Pastoral Care teams in most secondary schools became a main point of contact for families and partner agencies, with identified children and young people given additional learning materials such as pencils, jotters and novels where needed.

“[The] School thought outside of the box about all the different needs of the families. At the school there was access to stationery, FareShare food boxes, and hygiene supplies.” (Parent)

Schools which were already using online learning platforms were more agile in being able to support children and young people with this way of working once all learning was remote. A wide range of platforms were used to support the transition to remote learning. Most schools quickly reviewed the ability of children and young people to access online learning. Many sourced funding or local authority support to help provide devices and connectivity to families who would have been otherwise disadvantaged. Engagement with third sector community partners provided significant support in this area. The majority of schools used their knowledge of family circumstances well to appropriately identify the needs of their children and young people and prioritise support.

“We only had one laptop at home and I was using that for work. We filled out the survey to say we were facing a challenge with access to a device and we were really surprised when we were given an iPad.” (Parent, P7 Pupil)

Headteachers, along with other staff, used their knowledge of family circumstances to promote equity prior to school building closures by;

  • Employing surveys to consult with staff, children and families during the planning stage prior to school building closures.
  • Ensuring all children and young people, and especially those living in socio-economic disadvantage, had access to technology and connectivity and had appropriate devices to support them in their learning. Where needed, headteachers used Pupil Equity Funding to purchase tablets for families who would otherwise not have been able to participate due to financial issues.
  • Expanding the range of learning modes and keeping in contact with children and families.
  • Schools worked quickly to establish or enhance their online offer, using a wide range of platforms to share and develop remote learning.

The abrupt nature of the school building closures resulted in the need for additional professional learning for many staff, children and young people and families in gaining confidence and the required skills to use digital technologies as the main form of communication and learning. For example, in one school they described their approach to address support and preparation for school building closures by preparing remote learning guides which were distributed to parents, children and staff.

The Connecting Scotland fund was used to purchase resources, including tablets, which staff delivered to homes. In another school, one headteacher and their staff ensured that all children had connectivity to Glow and that children and teachers were able to use Glow and Teams effectively. Staff from within the local authority central team were cited as helping upskill teachers in their delivery of digital learning. Login details for platforms such as Sumdog and Education City were provided to all children in the week before the building closed and teachers prepared class learning grids which were sent home with personalised paper-based learning packs for every child. These were refreshed and sent weekly. This package of provision was welcomed by both parents and children.

Another school ensured parents and staff new to Google Classroom were supported by a digital leader from within the school team, making video tutorials available on school social media and See Saw as well as direct one-to-one support via phone calls. Where the incidence of pupils with English as an additional language was high, families were supported by guides, text messages and short clips in a range of languages.

Communication during school building closures

Communication, including virtual meetings, phone calls and garden visits was highly valued by learners and parents. There were many innovative examples of this taking place.

For communication to be effective, contact needed to be regular and meaningful. The varied and regular communication was highlighted by most headteachers as being important to help them better understand the immediate needs of children and their families while school buildings were closed. A wide variety of approaches maintaining links between school and home was reported. The frequency of contact varied across different schools. Staff in all schools felt they were being appropriately responsive to parents, children and young people. In most schools, weekly phone calls were made by headteachers and school staff to the most vulnerable families. Schools were clear this was a positive mechanism for keeping connected, with some reporting they were communicating more with targeted parents through the period of school building closures than they had done previously. Parents felt that this was extremely helpful and strengthened relationships with the schools. Children and young people, too, reported they valued being able to talk to their teachers about their experiences and learning. School staff and parents agreed with this, with parents also appreciating the flexibility this offered. These phone calls often involved signposting extra support and praising children and young people in their learning efforts.

“We really appreciated the headteacher’s weekly blog. Not only was it highly informative, it was upbeat and humorous too. We felt that we were all in this together.” (Parent)

Almost all schools used social media platforms extensively. This was positively commented upon by almost all children and young people, parents and staff. In one school, every teacher set up a Twitter account which became a channel of communications between school and home for children and young people.

Parents appreciated it most when help and support with learning activities was provided by the school. The range of supports included reviewing the amount of work children and young people had been asked to do. Parents reported that this worked best when adjustments were made and children and young people were given choices over tasks and when they could be done. In some schools, parents, children and young people welcomed when teachers provided daily video clips, explaining and modelling strategies and sharing news and stories. Regular ‘check-ins’ with families identified as needing more support was a feature in the majority of schools. This included making adaptations and adjusting learning tasks by changing options or offering more practical family-based learning, such as baking activities or use of the outdoors.

One school introduced a system of ‘learning mentors’ where teachers made weekly phone calls to targeted learners and families. In addition, families were able to contact dedicated school staff at any time to discuss and access support on a wide range of issues.

“I have four children with disabilities. Trying to follow the learning programme from the school nearly broke us as a family … In the end I caved in and asked the school for help. They gave one-to-one tuition every day for the last two weeks of lockdown. It was a saviour for our family.” (Carer)

There was a mixture of views from parents with some reporting that their child’s concentration improved through participating in online learning, but for others this was not the case. Parents felt it was challenging to get children and young people to concentrate for extended periods of time on online tasks. Effective communication helped encourage some children and young people who were not engaging in online learning to take part in events such as a virtual sports day, talent shows, and various wellbeing activities. A few schools monitored and tracked learner engagement to help them adjust and improve the uptake of their learning offer. Schools also worked with partners to ‘signpost’ families needing support from partner agencies.

Several schools consulted their children, young people and parents about the learning experiences planned. A small number of schools were responsive to feedback from children and parents and developed and altered their plans based on what was working well and what needed to change. There were examples of schools working with their Parent Councils to conduct surveys of how parents felt learning was progressing and how tasks were being received. Teachers adapted their planning based on this feedback. Many parents recognised and appreciated the lengths that some teachers went to in order to keep in touch with their children and young people and to provide support with their learning.

“Fantastic support from the school, kept them [the pupils] well-informed and made communication personal.” (Parent)

Use of online approaches to maintain contact and promote learning was variable and depended often on individual competence and confidence of children and young people, parents and teachers in using online platforms. There were examples of podcasts and recorded virtual lessons being offered but not to all children and young people, with this potentially leading to inequity in provision.

Resources

Staff from all schools described having had plans in place to support learning during the period of school building closures. These involved both online resources and paper-based learning packs, tailored to meet the needs of children, young people and families. Although the majority of school buildings were closed, some families, particularly those who had been identified as vulnerable, were referred to local childcare hubs where children could access learning, physical activities and arts and crafts and families could access respite support. Schools were creative in their approaches when using more specialist support, such as bilingual support workers to help ensure the digital inclusion of learners with English as an additional language. Children, school staff and parents were able to describe a rich variety of differentiated ways in which schools successfully provided online and physical resources to support home learning. Often, schools used doorstep and garden visits to deliver physical resources, identify needs and signpost families to other support providers.

There were many examples of schools providing devices, connectivity, learning packs and stationery to support learning. In the majority of schools, families living in socio-economic disadvantage were also supported with food and toiletries or signposted to partners who provided these. School staff linked well with third sector partners and local charities to meet the needs of children and their families. A few schools had insufficient digital resources to meet their identified need. Though resources, such as pens and jotters, were made freely available in local shops in almost all areas, some children and young people mentioned that they had to purchase more specialist resources, e.g. paint, when their initial supply ran out. For some, the affordability of having ‘credit’ on their phone to access learning was a challenge. This was particularly difficult for socio-economically disadvantaged families.

“The doorstop drop-offs and materials left in shops, these were very well used and replaced frequently, particularly in outlying villages.” (Teacher)

School staff described the helpful, targeted support given to identified children and young people including access to devices, digital coaching, phone calls to support learning and provision of practical equipment. Staff and parents also commented on the positive impact of children and young people being able to see teachers virtually once the technology allowed this. All school staff commented on the effective use of video to maintain a sense of community and to engage children, young people and their parents.

Partner organisations faced significant initial difficulties in delivering their services and were proactive and creative in their approaches to finding ways to work with children, young people and families. This included using phone calls or online delivery. Overall, delivering a service online resulted in varied levels of success. Some partner organisations reported no disruption to their service delivery as a result of changes made. Others felt it had resulted in a delay in the provision of support and a reduction in the provision of one-to-one support.

For some partners, it in fact widened their engagement with a greater number of families, thus removing the stigma associated with accessing services. By utilising the digital platform used by the school, the quality of the experience for children and young people was often improved. Some partner organisations found it more challenging to support learners virtually, citing issues of confidentiality. In some cases, children and young people who would typically have received counselling in school found it difficult to find a private place to have a virtual session. In some cases, families may have been unaware that the young person was receiving such support.

All partners commended the engagement with school staff, highlighting a range of ways partnership was enhanced including the identification of children, young people and families who required additional support, often due to generational or new ‘situational’ poverty.

“Our formal roles were blurred…We were all pitching in to help families who needed it most.” (Partner)

Engagement

Parents recognised that many schools and staff went ‘above and beyond’ to ensure children and families had access to learning experiences. Many parents commented on the variety of learning activities available for children and young people and how effective the school was at meeting their individual needs. Parents, children and young people reported favourably when they had also been consulted about support and learning. Where this approach was taken, it helped make the learning offer more flexible and manageable for parents and relevant for the learners. Learner motivation and engagement was strongest where there was consultation and choice about learning tasks, and there was regular contact with school to discuss need or to get more challenging tasks.

The lack of normal school day structure at home made engagement challenging for some children and families, in part due to the impact on family relationships as a result of parents/carers assuming the role of ‘teacher’. For some secondary-aged young people it became normal to sleep all day and not engage in learning until the evening, if at all. The impact on wellbeing for learners and their families and instances of families where parents were working and were unable to support children were also highlighted.

“The home learning experience was exhausting … I felt like I had picked up a second job.” (Parent)

Participant groups highlighted how some learning activities and approaches continually evolved over the school building closures period and the return to school. Parents, children and young people had mixed experiences regarding the volume of work; some felt it was just right, others found it was too much (especially at first), while a few described it as being not enough. Some parents found it difficult to keep up with the amount of work due to family and work commitments. They were also concerned about the amount of screen time their child or young person was experiencing, with some schools addressing this by setting an agreed period for online activity.

Initially some schools tried to replicate the school day posting a wealth of materials for each lesson/day before adopting a more flexible approach by providing weekly updates. Some parents, children and young people appreciated this as it allowed better planning at home. For example, a few schools used learning grids containing a menu of open-ended tasks, offering choice and flexibility for children, young people and parents, which was welcomed. In contrast, some parents and teachers described successful learning as dependent upon adopting a daily routine and structure which they felt relied on parent support. Engagement was therefore often more difficult for children and young people who did not have this scaffolding. Most headteachers used data well to inform these actions, with a careful balance being struck between offering support and putting the family's health and wellbeing first.

“Some families who did not engage with learning were in crisis, for example through addiction or domestic abuse. They were just surviving, so Google Classroom wasn’t a priority. The health and wellbeing of the families was our priority.” (Headteacher)

Many schools prioritised learning in literacy, numeracy and health and wellbeing in their provision of remote learning activities. A few schools took the decision to provide no new learning, focussing solely on consolidating prior learning, although extension work was available on request. The majority of parents, children and young people experiencing this found this approach, on occasion, frustrating and demotivating. Virtual experiences, such as school trips, sports days, P7 residential experiences and school assemblies helped maintain children’s motivation and connection to familiar school events.

“It felt a bit like being in prison… I felt quite lonely.” (P7 Pupil)

The loss of social interaction due to school building closures highlighted the importance and value of feedback and face-to-face connection between teachers, children and young people. Feedback from teachers had the strongest impact on learner engagement when provided promptly. School staff employed a range of ways to do this, including phone calls, emails, personalised ‘praise’ letters, certificates and doorstep and garden visits. Online ‘Meets’ helped children and young people stay connected and engaged. Although many schools used recorded videos, many children and young people would have liked more opportunities for live interactions with their teachers. Children and young people missed the opportunity to be able to ask questions and seek support from them face-to-face.

3.3 Attainment

Most participants reported that the period of remote learning has had a negative impact on the progress of most children and young people. However, this is a complex picture, with the impact on learning disproportionately affected by the age, stage, English language proficiency and socio-economic status of children and young people.

Most school staff stated that the negative impact of the closure of school buildings was most evident in younger children with the progress of children in P1 and P2 being most notably affected. The majority of parents, staff and partner agencies said that children who moved from nursery to primary school or from primary school to secondary school were most likely to be adversely affected by the period of remote learning. Younger children were more likely to say that they missed their teacher and being able to ask questions. A few headteachers indicated that remote learning had been detrimental to language development, particularly for younger children. Teachers highlighted the challenge of replicating routines and teaching approaches online, such as the structured repetition required for early level reading and writing.

“There has been a massive gap for the pupils who were in P1, now in P2. They missed that golden period of learning to read.” (Teacher)

The majority of staff highlighted limited opportunities for direct contact between children and young people and their teachers as a contributing factor to the reduction in engagement on the part of some learners. 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. Other parents expressed their concerns about the negative impact of school building closures on attainment, but a few held the view that their child’s health and wellbeing was more important than progress in learning at that time.

“Formal teaching was difficult to implement at home and you were paranoid about teaching them the wrong way…" (Parent)

A few young people stated that they worked more effectively at home as there were fewer distractions. They also mentioned a reduction in peer and school environment pressures as positive aspects of their remote learning experience. A few school staff reported that children and young people, particularly in the senior phase, engaged better with learning once they had their own digital devices. However, many children and young people indicated that the absence of in-class learning had negatively affected their progress. Learners often had contradictory experiences. For example, a few said that they liked being able to go into more detail or revise their learning, whilst others said that they felt less creative. In a few cases, parents, children and young people did not feel feedback from teaching staff was consistent. Therefore, they were unsure whether they/their child(ren) were making good progress.

My child hasn’t lost knowledge through not being at school, but he has lost confidence…”. (Parent)

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 closures of school buildings. They described many children and young people affected by socio-economic disadvantage as struggling to absorb new information and regain prior levels of independence and engagement. In the opinion of these teachers, the number of children and young people from socio-economically disadvantaged backgrounds on track to achieve appropriate levels had fallen significantly. To address this, staff in some schools described rigorous reviews of attainment and targeted teaching for individual or small groups of children and young people on return to school. Most schools have used assessment information to identify where children and young people are in their learning, while planning a very strong focus on health and wellbeing, literacy and numeracy.

“Children came back lethargic, unable to focus and independent learning had slipped. We were prepared for this and were ready to work smart…We have a recovery plan to mitigate the negative impact.’’ (Teacher)

In a few schools, children and young people completed a series of literacy and numeracy assessments on their return to school buildings. Teachers reported that these assessments showed that the period of remote learning had a negative impact on attainment levels, particularly for almost all learners affected by socio-economic disadvantage. There appeared to teachers to be a direct correlation between children who had engaged least with home learning and the lowest levels of progress. For example, teachers in the early years reported a negative impact on the promotion of independent writing in Primary 1 in comparison with previous years. One headteacher stated that assessments and tracking and monitoring had identified that some young people are no longer on track to achieve the expected national level or qualification. A minority of secondary school headteachers highlighted that remote learning had had an impact on the attainment of the new S1 cohort. Plans to mitigate this through supported study and targeted intervention groups are now in place. A few children and young people raised concerns that their attainment may be negatively affected.

Teachers in several schools noted evidence of loss of skills across learning. Since the return to school in August 2020, almost all school staff noted that there are targeted recovery programmes for identified learners now underway. The delay experienced by children and families in receiving support from some partner agencies was also raised as a concern by parents and teachers, for example, access to speech and language services. Some parents of vulnerable children felt their children had ‘fallen behind’.

Teachers reported that children and young people in Gaelic medium education, who are not speakers of Gaelic in the family home, were less confident in understanding the range of instructions and vocabulary they had mastered prior to the school buildings’ closure.

“There was detrimental impact because my child couldn’t have Gaelic conversations with her teacher.” (Parent of P5 Pupil)

On return to school buildings, one school focused on the skills of talking to encourage progression. A few school staff highlighted that children and young people for whom English is an additional language (EAL) had faced increased levels of isolation and barriers to learning during school building closure. Schools took steps to address these issues. One example is the work of the EAL service in conjunction with schools to provide live online lessons, although low uptake meant that engagement was a challenge. Single agency meetings with parents maintained contact with families and provided additional support. Staff highlighted an increase in motivation and confidence for a few children and young people for whom English is an additional language.

Where schools made effective use of data, including data gathered from assessments, observations, survey feedback and tracking conversations, they were more able to establish the impact of the period of remote learning on children and young people’s attainment. Additional staffing, often funded by Pupil Equity Funding flexibility or Scottish Government additionality, enabled specialised practitioners to work more intensely with identified groups. Effective use of data also allowed schools to plan and design targeted approaches to mitigate the impact on children and young people. In one example, school staff used the ‘My World of Work’ triangle to monitor the progress of identified children. In another example, initial assessments led teachers to focus on phonics, basic numeracy and health and wellbeing. Many headteachers held regular ‘planning and attainment’ meetings with staff. These supported targeted interventions and approaches to mitigate against widened attainment gaps, including a focus on writing and literacy in the early stages in some cases.

“Staff are more focused on targeted or precision teaching to close gaps. This is not support for learning – it is a new way of us identifying and targeting gaps. Support has become more dynamic and responsive to need. We have been able to use the COVID-19 situation to support this new direction." (Headteacher)

Almost all headteachers and teachers stated that children and young people who experience socio-economic disadvantage have made less progress to date than they were predicted to make before the start of the period of remote learning. There has been an impact on children and young people from travelling families, children with additional support needs and children with EAL. There was also a recognition by school staff that progress in health and wellbeing, literacy and numeracy has been prioritised. While seen as a necessity, this is also leading to concerns about children and young people’s access to other areas of the curriculum, such as modern languages, science, technology, art, music and drama.

3.4 Mitigations

Evidence gathered shows that during school building closures, schools within this sample provided a sustained and extensive range of both universal and targeted support for children, young people and their families to mitigate the impact of COVID-19 on learning. Schools worked hard to understand the challenges faced by families at that time in order to put in place appropriate measures to safeguard children and young people’s health and wellbeing and support remote learning. Most schools adopted a ‘whole family’ approach to the support they offered, often working creatively and collaboratively with a broad range of agencies and community partners to provide more targeted or tailored support to identified families where this was required. Schools sought to sustain key elements of this support as they re-opened and moved into the education recovery phase from August 2020.

Identifying the needs of children and young people

Most schools had established systems for identifying, tracking and monitoring the needs of their children and young people during school building closures. These allowed school staff to share appropriate information with others supporting families and to plan for the provision of resources, additional support or contact. In many schools, daily or weekly virtual meetings or phone calls took place between the headteacher and school staff to identify needs. Several headteachers successfully identified families that required additional support and equipment with the help of an equity matrix, developed using a range of measures, to indicate socio-economic disadvantage and need. Most schools carried out a digital needs survey in preparation for remote learning. Schools continued to monitor the needs of pupils and their families through regular questionnaires, ongoing communication, check-in phone calls with identified families, feedback from school/support staff and information shared by partners.

Measures put in place to mitigate the impact of school building closures

Provision of digital equipment, connectivity and learning resources

The most common mitigations were the provision of access to digital hardware and connectivity, and physical or paper-based resources to support remote learning.

In most cases, provision of devices and connectivity was targeted towards socio-economically disadvantaged families with limited or no access to digital hardware and connectivity. Funding for this was often provided by local authorities or by using additional Scottish Government Connecting Scotland grants. The majority of schools provided digital devices for families who required them and/or worked with local partners to broker provision. One headteacher described how a longstanding partner, a private company, provided 70 laptops which were distributed to children and young people. Another partner provided ‘dongles’ with data for those who had access to a device but no access to data.

To mitigate any equity issues, most schools also provided paper-based personalised learning packs containing learning activities adapted to meet identified needs. Other resources, such as stationery, art supplies and creative resources, such as kite making kits and tree saplings that could be planted at home, were often provided. One school made

use of a discretionary fund to support families to access learning supplies. Others used Pupil Equity Funding flexibly to provide concrete resources to those who would not otherwise have them. Some schools stocked local shops with learning resources and supplies for families to collect when these were required.

Professional learning and guidance to support online learning

Prior to the closure of school buildings, several local authorities and schools quickly implemented professional learning for staff and, in some cases, also training sessions for children and young people. This helped build and develop confidence and skills in using online learning platforms, and in the case of teachers, in how to support learning remotely. Most school staff viewed this professional learning as a key factor for high levels of engagement from children and young people during the period of school building closures.

Many schools issued instructions or ‘how to’ guides to children, young people and their families. These primarily focused on supporting staff, parents, children and young people to access and effectively engage with digital learning platforms and online learning.

Children, young people and their parents commented positively on the efforts of school staff who supported families to access online learning and who were on hand to provide support remotely or, where needed, through socially distanced visits. One example of this is where devices were delivered by school staff who also supported the families in how to use the devices and how to access the chosen digital platform and other online resources. Another school used an electronic survey to identify those pupils who were struggling with technology. The school then set up ‘help-desks’ to ensure children and families had sufficient confidence and skills to use the devices effectively.

In one school, to help ensure digital inclusion for pupils with English as an additional language, the specialist Bilingual Support Assistant was in contact more frequently with families and with partners who supported those families, often using voice notes in apps to communicate effectively.

Remote Learning

A range of digital platforms were used by schools to support remote learning and to engage with children and young people. A few schools reported using school channels to post video clips to support learning; and online libraries were used to provide access to free reading material.

Children and young people acknowledged the importance of being able to engage directly with their teachers and to receive feedback on their work, although the level of feedback was variable. Where feedback was received, it was greatly valued. Many children and young people were particularly appreciative of immediate feedback and connection with teachers during live online lessons. Most learners reflected that more live lessons would have improved the frequency of communication with their teachers.

Some school staff highlighted the benefits of the more informal online engagement they set up with classes, such as a weekly ‘snack and chat’. These were popular and provided a pastoral check-in for children and young people. Children and young people enjoyed the opportunity to participate in achievement and social events online, to connect more informally and to socialise with their peers. This fostered a sense of school community, enhanced wellbeing and supported good mental health. Some felt that relationships across the school community had benefitted during school building closure and continue to develop positively.

The range of online opportunities included:

  • Virtual playgrounds organised and managed by school staff; school trips to the zoo; sports day – some delivered in partnership with local sports clubs/Active Schools.
  • Activities and family learning.
  • Virtual events to share learning experiences and the examples of learning taking place, both at home and at the hubs, and to celebrate successes and achievements.
Tracking, supporting and sustaining learner engagement

Most schools had mechanisms in place for tracking learner engagement throughout school building closures. Some schools utilised their digital platform if it provided analytical information on levels of engagement. Other schools used traditional methods such as maintaining a red-amber-green spreadsheet. Staff valued the use of trackers for supporting the early identification of any reduction in engagement and enabling swift action to provide targeted support to address any barriers to engagement.

Setting expectations in terms of time spent on activities and on screen time each day during school building closures was noted as an important factor by parents, teachers, children and young people. One headteacher highlighted that it required sensitivity to set agreed expectations for staff who all had different personal circumstances, digital expertise and views on how they might deliver lessons.

Headteachers and school staff shared examples of interventions they had put in place to improve and encourage learner engagement, which included:

  • A daily structured learning plan which was differentiated, adaptions to the type of work for identified children and young people and changes to when and how work was set.
  • Additional access to technology, skills development and pastoral and counselling support.
  • Doorstep or garden visits provided support for the most vulnerable children, young people and families.
  • Support for children, young people and families in establishing routines like those of school (this was described as a challenge by some staff as it was difficult to support remotely).
  • A ‘calendar approach’ adopted by some teachers when issuing assignments so children and young people knew which subject would be issued on which day.
  • Encouraging the use of the outdoor and the local environment and deliberately setting many tasks outside to encourage physical movement and reduce screen time.

Some children, young people and parents spoke of the positive impact of these strategies on their wellbeing, explaining that they ‘provided reassurance and eased anxiety’.

Schools’ staff were aware that whilst it took some families a couple of weeks to engage properly with remote learning, for others accessing learning activities online remained a challenge throughout. In some cases, this was due to their rural location. A family support worker explained that ‘Providing a tablet was critical to overcome disadvantage. Internet access was still an issue, though.’

Pastoral support and communications

Headteachers and teachers all reported that consistent and ongoing communication with families, particularly vulnerable families, was a key priority for them during school building closures. In almost all schools, the senior leadership team kept in regular contact with targeted families. Most parents found these regular phone calls very useful. For some, they provided reassurance and eased parental anxiety. One staff member commented: “since lockdown our relationships with parents and families has strengthened because of all the contact we had with them in lockdown”. One teacher commented that effective communication helped to dissolve barriers and assist children’s progress in their learning.

Every school in this sample had put in place a range of mitigations to safeguard the wellbeing of vulnerable families. Most worked collaboratively with a range of partners such as Community Learning and Development, social work, housing and educational psychology, as well as local third sector and community organisations to provide bespoke pastoral support to families with identified needs. Support was wide-ranging and included regular wellbeing or safeguarding check-ins with families by phone or through garden/doorstep visits; the provision of food and other essential supplies; signposting families to sources of financial, emotional and practical support; and the provision of bespoke remote learning support.

Food insecurity was highlighted as a particular concern by some parents and by the majority of schools and partners; many schools had put in place measures to mitigate food insecurity. One school reported that their local authority was able to provide a choice of cooked or frozen meals or vouchers as an alternative to free school meals. A majority of schools worked with private or third sector organisations to establish food banks or to deliver regular food parcels directly to targeted families. One school described working in partnership with local shops and hospitality outlets to provide food deliveries to targeted families. In some schools, teachers reported delivering food parcels directly to targeted families themselves. This also provided them with the opportunity to check-in on the wellbeing of families and to put in place any additional support required. One parent commented that “the school was literally my guardian angel. They came to the door with food and a few basics when I had nothing. I will never forget that”. Another single parent described the provision of food and basic supplies by the school as “a life saver”.

Supporting families with English as an additional language to ensure they could access information from the school and stay connected was important for several schools, which provided translation and cultural support. One parent, using a translator, told of having arrived in the country only weeks before and having no phone or TV. The school provided a TV to ensure the family could hear the news and National Government announcements during the period of school building closures on a channel in their own language. Another school spoke of working closely with the Syrian Refugee Team who helped to support Syrian families with signposting and translating materials. The school had weekly communication with this partner to ensure the support was consistent.

Partnership, collaboration and multi-agency working

The importance of community resources and partnership working to mitigate the effect of school building closures was highlighted as a key factor by parents, partners and school staff. A strong sense of collaborative working had emerged where the school and its community partners had become solution-focused on the issues which had the greatest impact on their children and young people.

Many positive examples of collaborative working between schools and partner agencies were highlighted and all participant groups, including children and young people, spoke of the value and importance of these partnerships. One young person commented that “the whole community supported us, not just the school”. An example of this was one local partner that typically teaches orchestral instruments to children living in socio-economically disadvantaged areas expanding their provision to provide tablets and dongles where they were required. In addition, they supported 60 families with weekly food bag deliveries. Several partners and teachers spoke of how school building closures had created ‘a unique space’ giving them the opportunity to be more creative than ever before.

Some partners adapted to enable online delivery or to provide signposting to resources and support. In one example, social work colleagues introduced a variety of approaches to promote continued parental attendance at case reviews. A choice of virtual attendance or a blend of virtual, with their social worker on site, was offered to families. Social workers positively reported that this prevented the platform for a meeting becoming a barrier to attendance. However, this approach was not a viable option for all partners and some support had stopped altogether. An example of this was occupational therapy using the online platform ‘Near Me’ for consultation and support. School staff were unable to attend Children’s Hearings due to the complexities of secure platforms, which the headteacher reported as having a significant negative impact on collaborative support to families at a time when they needed it most.

Almost all stakeholders spoke of improved working relationships resulting from approaches implemented during school building closure. It was also noted that there was a stronger sense of the community working for the benefit of all children and families which led to families getting the right type of support at the right time. Several partners expressed an increased respect for headteachers and school staff and their level of commitment to the children, young people and their families. School staff and parents all recognised an increased feeling of being in a team. One parent described the partnership as being between ‘families-school-church-community’. School staff also noted an increased feeling of community with families.

Measures to support education recovery since August

Since August, schools have put in place a range of measures to support children and young people to safely return to school and to mitigate the impact of school building closures. These include measures to assess the progress of children and young people and to identify and address any gaps in learning since returning to school, most with a particular focus on equity. Some teachers mentioned concentrating on a limited number of curricular areas initially which is supporting children in primary schools to make progress. After-school homework clubs for targeted children in primary school and ‘catch up periods’ in secondary school were other mitigations highlighted by teachers.

For many schools, health and wellbeing continues to be a key focus as schools support children and young people to settle back in, establish routines, build relationships and re-connect with their teachers and friends. Some schools responded to the views of their school community through surveys and feedback to adapt some of their approaches on return to school. One teacher noted that lessons are now planned so that they can be delivered virtually as well as in class, to make sure that young people can access learning from home, should a child or young person be self-isolating.

There were mixed views expressed on the impact that health and safety guidelines were having on the delivery of teaching. One secondary headteacher described how the timetable had been changed to facilitate health and safety guidelines so almost all the curriculum is being delivered through double periods. He commented on how this was resulting in a faster pace of learning in most subjects. This is suiting some children and young people but for many this is a challenge. Another headteacher expressed concern that current restrictions have resulted in less active learning and more individual work in some classes. In contrast, a primary teacher commented on the increased opportunities for play and outdoor learning; this was also noted by several other teachers and headteachers.

The extra staffing that could be accessed by schools using additional funding made available by the Scottish Government was welcomed by all school staff. Headteachers spoke of how this flexibility has enabled them to target resources towards recovery support for identified learners on their return to school. Schools were able to provide additional staff to support vulnerable children and young people or to release staff to deliver targeted support. Pupil Equity Funding was also used to provide bespoke support to pupils. For example, Scottish Government recovery funding for additional staffing enabled a P1-P7 English Medium class within a Gaelic medium school to be redesigned into two classes which has made a very positive difference to children’s progress. One primary school cluster used their additional funding to employ a teacher to support wellbeing in the upper stages. In another school, Pupil Equity Funding was redirected in the period of school closures to allow engagement of a pupil and family support worker who worked with identified families.

Schools continue to provide a wide and effective range of supports, specific to their unique contexts, as they mitigate the impact of school building closures through their education recovery planning.


Contact

Email: ScottishAttainmentChallenge@gov.scot