Education and coronavirus: What next for UK schools?

26 June 2020

We owe it to our children to ensure that their education remains as consistent as it can be

Dominic Lee

This pandemic has shone a light on many inequalities in our society, be that the sobering statistic that people from a BAME background are twice as likely to die from COVID19 or the neglect shown to the elderly in care homes. These issues have rightly fought their way into the headlines and have seeped into the public debate. However, there is one issue where it seems that most people are oblivious, and that is regarding the education of our children during these times. The decision taken to close schools was spoken about a long time before it happened, but even when it was announced, school leaders were unsure of what provision they should be offering. Were they to only offer education to the children of keyworkers? Should they be providing work for all pupils during these times? The answers did not come from the Department of Education, with little to no guidelines given as to what schools should be doing. This led to somewhat of a postcode lottery for children, with some benefiting from teachers preparing work, checking in with families, and supporting children with their learning, while others were cast adrift and left to their own devices, leaving parents to pick up the slack.

In my role as an educator, I have worked setting up Google Classroom for the children whom I teach,, with the aims of giving them structure, live feedback, and the interactions, albeit digitally, that come from being in a classroom. If schools are to remain closed to the majority of children until September, or perhaps longer, there needs to be some system put in place to ensure that schools are broadly offering the same provision up and down the country.

It was through setting up Google Classroom that my eyes were opened to another inequality in our society – that of access to internet infrastructure. Whilst many derided Labour’s policy in the 2019 general election of offering free broadband, this pandemic has shown just what a necessity internet access is. As recently as this week, Tony Blair has called for the introduction of universal broadband during a discussion with TIME magazine[1]. Blair should be lauded for addressing this; with his support, it helps to bring the issue into the political mainstream.

Indeed, in the very early throes of this crisis, the government did look into offering free broadband provision, and preliminary discussions with IPSA (Internet Services Providers’ Association) did occur; however, IPSA argued that any roll out of the internet would impact on the service, stating that connecting millions more to the internet would lead to slower speeds for all.[2] There has been no update from either the government nor IPSA since March on free broadband provision. Free broadband may be anathema to the Conservatives, but their election pledge to roll out fibre optic broadband is something that needs to happen immediately if they are serious about digital education.

When I spoke with parents at the school where I work, there was a sizeable percentage who said they simply had no, or limited internet access at home. The statistics back this up, with the BBC reporting that 80 per cent of homes have a fixed broadband line, and when mobile data is taken into account, 90 per cent have coverage.[3] That is still anywhere between a fifth and tenth of the population who are unable to get adequate internet access.

For context, I should say that this is in an area in South London where poverty is rife – our own school statistics show that we are more than double the national average for children eligible for free school meals. However, this does not mean that other areas in the country don’t face similar challenges. An internet connection fast enough for things like online learning may not be available in parts of Scotland, Wales and the South-West, based on data from Which?[4], the largest independent consumer body. This is not an issue that affects just one region of the UK.

In addition to limited Internet access, devices with which to use the Internet are often in scarce supply among many children. It is unworkable for children to use a smartphone to access work and expect them to get any level of real engagement or learning from it. Whilst a laptop is not much better, it is a step in the right direction. Indeed, local authorities did offer laptops to pupils between 16 – 19[5], limited to those who were care-givers or who received support from social workers. Having spoken with a head teacher in the Westminster area, he said that the local authority were unable to provide laptops and pointed him in the direction of a charity to plug the gap. What would happen to children in areas where such charities do not exist? This is not a way to ensure that the most vulnerable in our society have the basic equipment they need to access education.

There are several things that the government, along with school leaders and businesses, can do to address this. Firstly, bring forward their policy of rolling out fibre optic broadband so that more people have access to a good internet connection, and work in partnership with BT and IPSA to ensure a minimum level of free internet for those who need it. Secondly, companies like Google, in keeping with their corporate social responsibility (CSR) agendas, could work with the UK government to provide Chromebooks to all state funded primary and secondary schools. Not only would this fulfil their CSR obligations, but it would also be a way to promote the uptake of Google Classroom and to raise the profile of this digital learning platform. Finally, there needs to be a discussion about digital inequalities in our society and a grown-up conversation about how to address this issue. In the first instance, schools need to be much more aware of the levels of access that pupils have to the internet at home, and how many people their devices are shared between. This then needs to inform the conversation as schools and educational institutions move towards more online and blended learning. It is also an area that Labour can seize upon and take back the mantle of education from the Tories. Labour should be hounding the government on this, along with all their other missteps throughout this pandemic. The debacle over free school meals, with the government forced into a retreat over funding during the summer holidays, has shown how vulnerable the government are when it comes to schools and education. Labour should welcome Marcus Rashford’s recent campaign victory and build upon it for the future, using his approach of framing issues as simple, morally right things to do.

Coronavirus is here to stay for the foreseeable future. We owe it to our children to ensure that their education remains as consistent as it can be. Digital learning and focusing on the poorest and most vulnerable in our society is one way to do this. I hope for the sake of our pupils that the government gets to grips with this, and fast.