Dear Prime Minister, not all education in lockdown is equal

With Lilia Blower, Year 10 pupil

Like most other school children, my daughter, Lilia, who's in Year 10, has been getting up each morning afternoon, turning on her device and begrudgingly tackling the school work set by her teachers. The work that she is expected to produce isn't just to ensure that she achieves something more challenging than a 12 hour Netflix marathon, however.

A lot of this work counts directly towards her GCSE grades, and the rest is meant to be preparing her for the exams that she will be expected to sit next summer. Lilia is a pupil at a large mainstream school in Hertfordshire and has now spent nine weeks teaching herself 9 GCSE subjects using the resources posted daily by her teachers. Lilia has dyspraxia and ADHD and is receiving SEND support at her school.

Learning in this way has not been easy for many students, so when Lilia was asked to write a speech about something she felt strongly about, she decided that it was important to highlight the situation that students who have their GCSEs and A levels next year been left in. She believes that the government have, so far, overlooked the impact that lockdown has had, and will continue to have, on these students, especially because it creates an unfair divide between students who are able to access education and those who are not.

SNJ thought that it was important issue that those in charge should be made aware of, and who better to explain it to them than a young person who is experiencing it first hand?

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Dear Prime Minister,

The coronavirus has affected everyone in the UK, no one can say that their lives have not had to change in the past few months. For school-aged children and their teachers, these changes have happened very quickly, and remarkable things have been achieved in a very short amount of time. However, I believe, that whilst we should recognise how well schools have risen to the challenge, we shouldn’t ignore the consequences that lockdown will have for some school age children.

The government have already addressed some of these and have put in place measures to help year 11s and 13s who have not been able to sit their exams because of the coronavirus. But the conversation about how pupils might be affected appears to have stopped there. I am therefore asking the government, and those in charge of our education system why they are not also taking the time to consider the affect that the pandemic might have on students in other years groups as well. It makes me question whether students in year 10 and year 12 are going to be the ones who pay the ultimate price for the coronavirus lockdown?

Lilia
Lilia

To answer this question, we have to look at what the government has actually done so far to plan ahead for next year’s GCSE and A level exams. After all, the government must surely want to ensure that our exam results accurately reflect our true potential, and not instead reflect how well we all were able to cope with learning in lockdown?

The answer is… the government haven’t even taken the time to consider how lockdown learning might affect students in year 10 and 12. I believe this is a huge oversight and could end up with students who are already disadvantaged in the education system being the ones who pay the biggest price.

Many people see the lockdown as an equaliser for education because now everyone is in the same boat with distanced learning. However, not everyone is issued with the same sized paddle.

Inequality in lockdown

Firstly, not all schools are equal. They need access to electronic equipment which can run the software the teachers need. The government released a statement that said, “Our schools that have technology already embedded within teaching and learning have developed effective learning communities”. That’s great for the schools that have the technology. With funding cuts having hit schools hard over the last few years, the IT budget is one that has often been sacrificed in order to pay for essentials.

With little money in the pot, some schools have struggled to rethink their entire teaching style to make it work online without the resources, infrastructure or know-how to achieve it. On the other end of the spectrum, there are schools that have already integrated technology into their everyday curriculum, with all pupils issued with their own iPad and teachers already trained and confident using tools such as Google Classroom and other virtual learning environments.

Also, class sizes vary greatly between schools. Delivering a virtual lesson to a group of ten students is in itself a challenge, however delivering the same lesson to a class of 30 is far more difficult, if not impossible. In this scenario one group of students has access to interactive teaching, and the other group ends up relying on static work being set and tackled by the pupil alone.

Lego storm trooper in wheelchair

Secondly, not all homes are equal. In my school, which is a large mainstream secondary school in an affluent area, we have pupils from many different backgrounds. Some are on lockdown in million pound houses with all the latest gadgets to access their school work on and others are just about scraping by with food vouchers to replace free school meals and sharing a mobile phone and data allowance with their siblings and parents in order to try to access their school work.

Not all of us are sailing through this crisis in homes where we have the privilege of getting bored. There are pupils who live in abusive households, where their energy is spent trying to simply keep their heads above water, then there are the young carers who have a full-time job at home looking after a loved one whose needs take priority over any schoolwork. Not all of us have access to quiet places to work away from siblings and family life, and it is the lucky few who have parents who are able, and willing to support us with our home education. 

Thirdly, not all online education is equally accessible for all students. We all learn in different ways, and for some students, this new way of accessing education may feel like a positive change. However, for many students, especially those who might already find learning more challenging than their peers, these last few months have seen a ‘one size fits all’ education system rapidly implemented that leaves them attempting to swim not sink when all their swimming aids have been put (at least two metres) out of their reach. 

Lego storm troopers with hose

SEND inequality

We know that nationally children with special educational needs and disabilities mostly do not do as well academically as their peers. This is despite the fact that, for most of these children, their academic ability is equal to children the same age as them. It is likely, therefore, that the Covid-19 lockdown will have a greater impact on children with SEND than their classmates.

With this in mind, we have to accept that year 10 and year 12 pupils are not all in the same boat because coronavirus has forced us to rely on an education system that does not work for children whose needs cannot be met by online learning methods.

For example, how are students who struggle with reading large volumes of text because of dyslexia, visual impairment or ADHD being given the same quality of education as students who have no difficulties in this area?

What about students who rely on specialised teaching, differentiated work, or trained classroom assistants to help them understand the work in a way that their brains need? What about students that rely on the routine and structure of school who are suddenly expected to cope with this new normal, or students who believe that school is where work happens and not home? How are students with hearing impairments able to participate in virtual lessons, and what will happen to these pupils when they are expected to return to a school where everyone is wearing face masks and they can no longer lip read? Do you think that you would feel like you had the same opportunities to learn as everyone else if this is how the Covid-19 emergency had impacted your education?

And has anyone considered the impact on the parents of these children? The educational changes brought about by the pandemic has also impacted them, with parents suddenly expected to deliver highly specialised educational support without any training or support themselves. Of course, not all parents are either willing, or able to do this, so once again children who are already disadvantaged face further challenges that their peers do not.

Government statistics recognise that a large majority of pupils who have a recognised special educational need or disability also face financial hardship. A report by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation in 2016 stated that:

“Children with special educational needs and disability (SEND) are more likely to experience poverty than others. They are also less likely to experience a fulfilling education or leave school with outcomes that reduce the chances of living in poverty as adults… there is some way to go before all children with SEND are able to receive the kind of high-quality educational provision that they deserve.”

Special educational needs and their links to poverty, Bart Shaw, Eleanor Bernardes, Anna Trethewey and Loic Menzies

I believe it is clear, therefore, that coronavirus is far from being the great equaliser in education. In fact, I would go so far to say that it has significantly disadvantaged the majority of school-aged children. Indeed, analysis by the Centre for Economic Performance at the London School of Economics suggested that a four-week closure, “could have an impact on students’ achievement equivalent to moving an average child down to the bottom 30 per cent of children”. The effect for “children in low-income families” is even greater.

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For some, remote schooling will be long-term

Of course, we all recognise that schools will work very hard to catch children up whenever schools are able to return to ‘normal’. But for some children, myself included, a return to school may still be a very long way off. My younger brother is on the government’s ‘most vulnerable’ list. This means that, even if the rest of my year group is able to go back to school, in order to protect him, I will have to carry on coping with my GCSEs on my own. No one knows or can even guess how long this might be for. For other children returning to school will be very difficult for them and it may take a long time until they are able to attend full time again. 

The government has been made aware of the impact the measures put in place because of the pandemic have had, and will continue to have, on our generation. We have seen an acknowledgment that adjustments need to be made for the students that were due to sit exams this summer, and a great deal of effort has been taken by schools to ensure that all pupils achieve a fair grade. But I want to know why they have not acknowledged the disadvantages that the pupils in the year below are also facing.

The government expects me to sit exams next year that will determine what A-levels I am able to take, This, in turn, will affect what degree I can apply for and then what my career opportunities will be. These exams are our chance to prove our potential and secure the future opportunities that we have worked so hard to attain. If the government does not address this, we run the risk of becoming the year groups that bear the burden of their time in lockdown throughout the rest of their academic careers. It’ll also ensure that those pupils that already have to work so much harder than everyone else to just keep their heads above water are being made to do it with an anchor tied to their feet. 

Earth Vader giving certificate to storm trooper

I put it to you, Mr Prime Minister, that every child deserves the opportunity to reach their potential, and the creativity and commitment that so many people have shown in trying to keep our education going during the lockdown needs to be used to make sure that when my classmates and I sit down to take our exams next summer, we do it confident that it will open up opportunities for us rather than shutting doors.

I would urge the government to harness the expertise and insight that exists in the education system, to ensure that all children in years 10 and 12 are given the opportunity to reach their potential, no matter what their experience of education during coronavirus has been. We want to come out of this as the generation that thrived in adversity, not simply survived it, and we need your help to do that.

Yours Sincerely,

Lilia Blower, a year 10 pupil

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