The COVID-19 outbreak has had devastating and tragic consequences on peoples’ lives. It has also had significant impact on the education system through the partial closure of schools. UNESCO figures [i] indicate 186 countries have implemented school closures for in excess of 1 million pupils worldwide and in this blog I consider what impact this has on pupil’s learning and wellbeing. From 23 March, schools in England closed for pupils with the exception of vulnerable learners and those of key workers. Figures from the Department for Education (DfE) [ii] show that less than 2.5% of pupils are in schools currently. In May, the Government presented its roadmap for the partial reopening of schools, with aims to reopen Reception, Year 1 and Year 6 classes in primary schools in early June and for Year 10 and 12 pupils in secondary schools two weeks later. Ministers have now made the final decision that schools will reopen. The Prime Minister has announced that now the Government’s five tests have been met, he is assured that primary schools can open from 1 June and secondary schools on 15 June for Year 10 and Year 12 pupils. That said, the number of local authorities who are advising schools not to reopen is growing steadily. School leaders are being told to prioritise vulnerable children and those of key workers in all year groups. Until now, key workers were urged to send their children to school as a last resort: now it is “strongly encouraged”. There is also new guidance for children with educational needs or a disability.
Ambitious plans and ones that have fueled heated debates publicly between teacher unions, the Government and scientific advisers. The Government is insistent that children must return to school to receive their educational entitlement, countered by many educationalists as a stance that puts the economy first before the welfare of children and families. Schools have been amazing in adapting to the new situation quickly, and teachers continue to provide excellent online resources across the curriculum to maintain continuity of learning in these unprecedented times. But what is the impact of (partial) closure of schools having on children's learning and wellbeing?
Impact on learning
Missing school has a detrimental effect on children’s learning. We already know of a ‘summer learning loss’ effect in August, and younger children seem affected by this more. Many families just do not have access to effective online learning. In a report by the Chartered College of Teachers [iii] this month, families from higher socio-economic backgrounds spend more time supporting their children’s online learning and that they are more likely to have better access to online learning materials than disadvantaged families. This leads to a further widening of society’s socio-economic gap. Cat Scutt, from the Chartered College writing in Schools Week argued that “pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds are potentially losing out on multiple fronts”. The attainment gap already existed prior to lockdown and school closure has widened this. Conjectures in some quarters of the DfE have put a figure of a 75% widening in the attainment gap due to school closures. Quality of instruction remains vital at this time. A report by the Education Endowment Foundation [iv] argued that if there are clear explanations, scaffolding and feedback online, pupils should learn as effectively through remote teaching as they do with face-to-face instruction. Peer interaction in distance learning, peer marking, live discussions and sharing models of good work were found to be effective in improving learning outcomes. The report also recommended strategies that support pupils working independently, such as checklists, daily plans and pupils reflecting on their work.
Impact on wellbeing
These are extremely stressful times for adults and children alike, and this is exacerbated through the added stress from closed schools. Children are social beings and miss being with peers. Being isolated from friends impacts on their mood and disposition. Learning and behaviour are affected by stressful circumstances such as lockdown. The prefrontal cortex, the area of the brain responsible for higher-order thinking and decision-making is the region most affected. Stress leads to difficulties with impulse control and memory retrieval [v] vital for learning and subsequent feelings of success and achievement. Stress too can come from personal and home circumstances. Some children live in abusive homes and rates of domestic violence have risen in lockdown. Families have suffered bereavement. There are financial worries from lockdown; real challenges for children relating to poverty and cramped living conditions. Some parents are self-isolating from their children due to illness or being key workers, all adding to stress. Medical advisers tell us that children’s symptoms from COVID-19 are generally less severe than adults, but this is not scientifically proven.
These are some of the issues raised by the closure of schools. Lockdown and the closure of many schools has had a detrimental effect on children’s learning and wellness. Government responses including, “test, track and trace” are at a very early stage. Protective measures for return outlined in the Education Secretary’s speech on 16 May appear anything but systematic and are insufficiently thorough to be effective and surely must involve schools much more. There is much scientific evidence and evidence from educationalists to recommend postponing the June reopening date for schools. I recently commented in an article in the Daily Express that sending children back to school too soon puts lives at risk unnecessarily. The full impact of closure on children’s learning and their mental health has yet to be determined, but it has had an impact. We all want a return to school opening again but a return that has children, teachers and families prioritised and one that is well managed and safe for everyone.
Dr Jonathan Doherty is a Senior Lecturer in Education at Leeds Trinity University. Jonathan is a media spokesperson for the University, is a regular blogger and has appeared on SkyTV and local and national radio commenting on events in education and education policy issues. He has appeared twice in 'Whos Who in the World' for his contribution to education.
[i] UNESCO (2020) COVID-19 Education disruption and response. Available at: https:// en.unesco.org/covid19/educationresponse
[ii] Department for Education (2020). Coronavirus (COVID-19) Attendance in Education and Early Years Settings in England – Summary of Returns to 7 May 2020 [online]. Available: https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/884520/Coronavirus__COVID-19__attendance_in_education_and_early_years_settings_in_England___summary_of_returns_to_7_May_2020.pdf
[iii]Müller, L. & Goldenburg, G. (2020). Education in Times of Crisis: the Potential Implications of School Closures for Teachers and Students [online]. Available: https://my.chartered.college/wp-content/uploads/2020/05/CCTReport150520_FINAL.pdf
[iv] Education Endowment Fund (2020). Teaching and Learning Toolkit [online]. Available: https://educationendowmentfoundation.org.uk/evidence-summaries/teaching-learning-toolkit/
Vogel S. & Schwabe L. (2016) Learning and memory under stress: implications for the classroom. Science of Learning 1(1): 1–10.
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