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

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.

Section 4 - Intensifying support for reducing inequity

The 2021 National Improvement Framework and Improvement Plan sets out clearly our overarching ambitions and priorities:

“Since the onset of COVID-19, the Scottish Government has placed protecting the interests of children and young people at the heart of our response. Schools remaining safe, open and welcoming – with a focus on health, wellbeing and intensified support for reducing inequity and enabling the highest quality of learning and teaching – has been a critical component of that priority.”

These sentiments echo those in the earlier ‘Coronavirus (COVID-19): Scotland's Strategic Framework’, which also highlights the importance of schools remaining safe, open and welcoming:

“Throughout the pandemic we have worked with our partners in local government to put the rights and wellbeing of children and young people at the centre of our response… Recognising the unique impacts on children and young people, and to ensure the virus does not prevent them receiving the best start in life, we will prioritise keeping schools and regulated childcare, including early learning and childcare, open while ensuring the safety of children and young people and the staff who have worked hard to keep settings open.”

The strength of this priority has been a critical factor in mitigating many of the potential impacts identified in previous sections. The focus on equity as an overarching aim has underpinned all parts of the response, and was endorsed by the International Council of Education Advisers, (2020) in their recent report.

COVID-19 is waging a war on all of society. This is particularly true in the most disadvantaged communities of Scotland. The pandemic reinforces the issue of equity as the defining agenda of our time.”

A number of specific themes have emerged from the evidence review and from the school-based case studies that directly relate to and support this focus. These themes – or factors behind the quality of educational experiences and attainment during this period – can be broadly categorised as follows:

I. Health and wellbeing support.

II. Digital infrastructure and connectivity.

III. Support to parents and families.

IV. Teaching provision and the quality of learning.

V. Support for teachers and the wider workforce.

Governments around the world have had to respond to these issues in real-time. This has been no different in Scotland, where all parts of the education sector have worked collaboratively to adapt policy and practice in order to offset and minimise the potential for negative impacts.

This section, therefore, provides a short summary of those emerging themes, and begins to map against each an illustrative selection of the key mitigations that have been put in place to date. These span the timeframe from the outset of the pandemic onwards, including actions implemented in the run up to lockdown, during that period, and following the reopening of schools in August.

I. Health and wellbeing support

What the evidence shows us

  • School building closures and home-learning experienced worldwide have impacted on learners’ educational experiences and wellbeing.
  • There was a risk to both the mental and physical health and wellbeing of children and young people during school building closures.
  • There were also risks to the health of family members, as well as children and young people self-harming.
  • The number of contacts with social services and other organisations regarding wellbeing concerns increased significantly. Staff view the deterioration in wellbeing as negatively impacting learning.
  • Where schools provided outdoor learning tasks, parents and children and young people were positive about the physical health benefits.
  • Children and young people reported missing the social aspect of school and the daily interactions with friends and teachers. The impact of this was lessened when they were able to remain in contact with their friends via digital platforms.

Examples of existing support

II. Digital infrastructure and connectivity

What the evidence shows us

  • Access to technology and digital capability is, and will remain, a fundamental aspect of education in Scotland.
  • There is an inherent need for appropriate digital devices, connectivity and the skills to use online platforms well.
  • Variation in the availability of technology for children and young people was evident, with socio-economically disadvantaged children and young people being most negatively affected.
  • As well as those living in socio-economically disadvantaged communities, connectivity was a particular issue for remote/rural communities.

Examples of existing support

  • A £25m investment for school aged-learners through the Connecting Scotland Programme has delivered over 58,000 devices and connectivity to people suffering from digital exclusion. In total, the programme is expected to benefit up to 70,000 socio-economically disadvantaged children and young people.
  • Local authorities and schools across the country adopted a proactive approach in the provision of devices and connectivity for children and young people who required them. This ranges from Scottish Borders Council ensuring every learner in secondary schools (and school teachers) were allocated their own iPad, to the work being undertaken by the West Partnership to provide a package of recorded lessons for schools to access across Scotland.

III. Support to parents and families

What the evidence shows us

  • Remote learning can be effective given the right conditions. This works best for children and young people for whom intentional, personalised and sufficient resources are available.
  • Learning packs, including learning activities plus resources such as stationery, were valued by parents. For families who were unable to collect learning packs, some schools delivered them to homes or local shops.
  • Parents and children and young people reported favourably when they had also been involved in consultations about support and learning. Communication was a key feature that was highly valued by learners and parents.
  • Although many schools used recorded videos to support learners, many learners would have liked more opportunities for live interactions with their teachers.
  • Effective communication helped encourage some pupils who were not engaging in remote learning to take part. Practitioners employed a range of ways to do this, including phone calls, emails, personalised ‘praise’ letters, certificates and doorstep and garden visits. Online meets helped learners stay connected and engaged.
  • 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 was experiencing.
  • Initially some schools tried to replicate the school day posting a wealth of materials for each lesson/day before adopting a more flexible approach with weekly updates provided. Some parents and pupils appreciated this as it allowed for better planning at home.
  • In a few cases, children and young people reported they had found it easier to learn in a remote setting. This was particularly prevalent where they had good digital skills and parental support.
  • Collaboration with partners and other agencies enabled schools to better identify vulnerable families and put in place tailored support which included: regular wellbeing/safeguarding check ins by phone or through doorstep visits; provision of food and other essential supplies; signposting families to sources of financial and emotional support; and provision of bespoke home-learning support.
  • In a number of schools, translation and cultural support was provided to families where families have English as an additional language.

Examples of existing support

  • Increased support for families to engage with remote learning included via Glow (the national online learning environment which is freely available to all learners and teachers in Scotland) and Scotland Learns, a range of ideas and suggestions of activities to help parents, carers and practitioners support learning at home and during the recovery period.
  • A Parent Club COVID-19 internet microsite has been developed to provide authorities and parents with advice on working from home whilst caring for children, advice on helping children with remote and blended learning as well and links to advice and support resources for parents of children with additional support needs.
  • A new National Parent Forum Nutshell guide was supported to advise on blended learning and was published in August 2020. This joins further Nutshells on Supporting Learning at Home during “lockdown” and on online safety.
  • Further guidance to schools on how to ensure effective parental involvement, communication and engagement during COVID-19 was published at the end of November 2020.
  • Learning through Lockdown highlights how the youth work sector has continued to engage and support children and young people throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. This has included providing crisis support for the most vulnerable families and mitigating the impacts on children and young people’s mental health, learning and development.
  • The £100 million Winter Support Plan for families and children, will support families on low incomes, supporting services for children and young people and enhancing capacity within the third sector and communities.
  • The Scottish Government provided over £37 million in additional funding to support local authorities continued provision of free school meals during school building closures and school holidays. This supported an estimated 153,000 children and young people.
  • £10 million of additional funding has also been made available to local authorities to continue the provision of free school meals over the winter holidays and Easter.

IV. Teaching provision and the quality of learning

What the evidence shows us

  • The majority of participants held the view that school building closures had a negative effect on pupil progress and attainment. Children and young people who were most negatively affected by school building closure included those adversely affected by poverty.
  • Mitigations considered within international literature for the recovery period include greater personalisation, one to one support, smaller groups and specialist support where appropriate
  • Moving to models of online learning has required adapting teaching and learning practices.
  • Prior to the closure of school buildings a number of schools quickly implemented training to help build and develop confidence and skills in using online learning approaches to support learners.
  • Schools already using online platforms were better placed to move to online learning and teaching; this worked best when supported by appropriate digital training for staff, pupils and parents.
  • Children for whom English is an additional language were also cited as having to revisit skills they had developed prior to the school building closures, in both their mother tongue and in English.
  • Literacy was more often cited as being negatively affected than numeracy.
  • Children in the early years of primary or those starting secondary were most likely to see a negative impact on their progress.

Examples of existing support

  • £80 million of additional investment in education staff which has supported the recruitment of over 1,400 additional teachers and 200 support staff this year. These additional teachers will intensify support for individuals or groups of pupils who have significant gaps in their progress as a result of lockdown, supporting young people who are shielding, supporting small groups of learners who need more intense support and covering classes for teachers who are shielding.
  • Education Scotland has committed to strengthening its close working with e‑Sgoil, widening access for learners to live lessons, providing timetabled online classes, and training additional teachers to provide online learning as part of a wider National e-learning Offer.
  • The provision of flexibility to redirect Attainment Scotland Funding (see below) to help mitigate the impacts of school building closures on the most socio-economically disadvantaged families, and to enable school leaders to make adjustments to existing plans to be delivered as schools return.
  • The Continuity in Learning Guidance (published July 2020) offers high-level advice to local authorities as they consider the support required to address the impact of interrupted learning and disconnection from school or early learning and childcare for many children and young people.
  • Given recent developments, new Remote Learning advice has been prepared (January 2021) by Education Scotland, in partnership with the COVID-19 Education Recovery Group, to support practitioners in leading remote learning in the coming weeks.

V. Support for teachers and the wider workforce

What the evidence shows us

  • Additional training for staff, parents and pupils increased user confidence and knowledge and this remains a priority. For staff, digital pedagogy remains a focus for continued professional learning.
  • The evidence reviewed is also clear that the availability of devices and connectivity alone is not enough, with teaching support and peer interaction cited as important for improving learning outcomes, particularly for children and young people who are socio-economically disadvantaged.

Examples of existing support

  • Guidance has been produced to support teachers and other professional practitioners in preparing the curriculum offer for the recovery phase, with an emphasis on prioritising the physical, mental and emotional wellbeing of children and young people, practitioners and families.
  • Schools continue to drive forward good practice during this recovery period. Education Scotland have collected examples of effective practice and published them on the National Improvement Hub to celebrate the work of staff in ensuring children and young people enjoy high-quality learning experiences.
  • School staff have been offered new support as part of a £1.5 million funding package to help manage additional pressures as a direct result of the COVID-19 pandemic. This package of support for school staff, developed in partnership with organisations represented on the Education Recovery Group, provides direct access to a range of focused supports including coaching, reflective supervision and opportunities for school staff to learn together through the challenges presented by COVID-19.
  • To support headteachers during lockdown, more opportunities to engage online were offered, including a range of ‘Headspace’ sessions designed to offer a space for headteachers to share issues and challenges and benefit from the experience of others. Themes included early learning and primary transitions, secondary transitions, leading remote learning, leadership in challenging times, health and wellbeing for headteachers, and recovery planning for schools, including a Blether with colleagues in public health. Over 200 headteachers joined these Headspace sessions and ‘Big Blether’ events.
  • Guidance for early learning and childcare settings, schools and local authorities during COVID-19 was published on the National Improvement Hub to support practitioners across all sectors to target efforts towards approaches which continue to have positive benefits on children’s learning, particularly when considering how best to support vulnerable and socio-economically disadvantaged families.
  • Transitions in 2020 was published in late Spring 2020 providing practitioners advice, guidance, signposting and practical resources to support children and young people through transitions in the context of COVID-19.
  • The COVID-19 Education Recovery resource provides a single point of access for school staff to guidance and support for COVID-19 recovery.
  • Teachers in their subject networks have shared and developed resources for online access and use. The first set of these – for the sciences and maths and focussed on senior phase coursework – have been curated by Education Scotland and are now available for use.

Flexible funding and additional funding provided to date during the Pandemic

The Attainment Scotland Fund

By the end of 2020/21 the Scottish Government will have invested over £750 million through the Attainment Scotland Fund. Of that, in 2020/21 over £182 million is being invested through the following programmes:

  • Pupil Equity Funding - Over £122 million to 97% of schools across Scotland, empowering headteachers to assist them in their planning and decision making.
  • Challenge Authorities - £43 million to nine local councils with the highest concentrations of deprivation in Scotland.
  • Schools Programme - A further £7 million for 73 schools with the highest concentration of pupils from areas of deprivation.
  • Care Experienced Children and Young People Grant - over £11.6 million of funding for projects such as mentoring programmes and outdoor and play-based education.
  • National programmes - a number of grants are provided to third sector organisations for specific pieces of targeted work.

Since the start of the pandemic, the Scottish Government have encouraged and enabled local authorities and schools to target this support where it is most needed. One example of this is via increased flexibility to redirect Attainment Scotland Funding (ASF) to help mitigate the impacts of school building closures on the most disadvantaged families, and make adjustments to plans as schools returned.

This flexibility is in addition to the Scottish Government’s commitment to spending all £8.2 billion of COVID Barnett consequentials to support Scotland’s COVID response.

This includes over £0.5 billion in social protection with over £350 million through the communities funding package. Up to £100 million through the Winter Plan for Social Protection with a £100 payment for each child in receipt of Free School Meals on the basis of low income – supporting an estimated 156,000 children and young people. Almost £3.3 million across 9 children’s charities, who will provide direct support to children and families who need it this winter and £15 million to support people in local authority areas impacted by level 4 restrictions. In addition, over £200 million has been confirmed for local authorities to support local efforts and resilience.



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