Improving the provision of education in the pandemic

  • COVID-19

Dr Angela Donkin, National Foundation for Educational Research 

In this piece Chief Social Scientist from the National Foundation for Educational Research, Dr Angela Donkin, explores ways of improving education provision during a pandemic.

NFER conducted surveys, in May and July 2020, of school leaders and teachers, in a representative sample of 2200 mainstream primary and secondary schools in England. As the numbers testing positive for Covid 19 are rising rapidly again, what does this research suggest we should be doing to help support children’s education through this next wave? (Julius and Sims, 2020; Lucas et al., 2020; Nelson and Sharp, 2020; Sharp et al., 2020a;  Sharp et al., 2020b; Walker et al., 2020).

Keeping schools open

The starting point needs to be the provision of education within the school setting. It is clear from our results that children suffered a large loss to their learning when schools shut, with 98% of all children behind by an average of 3 months in their curriculum learning by mid-July.  Remote learning was by no means an effective substitute for being in school.

A key pre-requisite for keeping a school open is to have enough staff.  In May, when schools were closed to all but vulnerable and keyworker children, just 75% of FTE staff were available to work either at home or on site. In July, the staff numbers were up to 91% FTE, but as cases of infection increase again, the risk of insufficient staff looms.  The staffing issue is compounded by the additional pressures on schools to run effectively while social distancing. Among the 78 per cent of senior leaders who had concerns about the manageability of opening their schools in September, many said they needed additional staffing and resources including teachers, TAs, cleaning staff, support staff, additional cleaning and protective equipment, and IT. Primary school leaders had requested an additional 11 FTE staff on average, and secondary schools, an additional 31.   So despite a  continued vocalised commitment to keep schools open, without an expansion in the number of teachers or support staff, or a new volunteer army, has enough been done to ensure that schools will be able to remain open? I certainly think this is an area worth more attention, the lack of which was highlighted in September, when Covid-19 case numbers were increasing and teachers were struggling to get tested – the unions had to intervene to add them to the priority list.

Teaching quality in school not at pre-Covid-19 levels

In July, when schools were partially open, three quarters of teachers were not able to teach to their usual standard. Half said that their teaching practices had been negatively impacted by social distancing; they could not do small group work, were unable to access resources; and could not walk around the class to help those who might be struggling.  We cannot assume that children will learn the curriculum at the same pace.  This is then compounded by understandably higher levels of staff and student absence, as staff and children have to self-isolate.  The government has mandated remote provision in these circumstances, but again, did they consider the staff needed to provide a mix of online and remote provision? In July despite the fact that the majority of children were still studying remotely, the majority of schools were prioritising in school provision over remote learning. Ensuring that schools have the resources they need to deliver high quality teaching in a safe environment should be a priority, while best practice in pedagogy in Covid-19-secure settings should be shared.

Uneven impact on the more disadvantaged

Risks of closure and sub-optimal teaching practices point to the potential of additional negative impacts on children’s schooling reaching beyond just the lockdown period. If the impacts were fairly distributed, then the pandemic may not have worsened the existing deprivation gap. However in July teachers in the most deprived schools were over three times more likely to report that their pupils were four months or more behind in their curriculum-related learning, compared to teachers in the least deprived schools (53 per cent compared to 15 per cent). Disadvantaged pupils were significantly less likely than those from more advantaged backgrounds to be engaged in remote learning or to attend school when invited back in the summer term, and significantly more likely to be in need of intensive catch-up support. The reasons for lower engagement with remote learning were diverse, but it was clear in May and unfortunately in July that approximately a quarter of children did not have sufficient IT access (a laptop/tablet and/or decent broadband).  A highly targeted government scheme to equip the very poorest had failed to be delivered at the speed or scale needed by July.

Increasing inequality, and likely to get worse

The unfortunate outcome of this differential impact is that inequality in curriculum learning between advantaged and disadvantaged children had increased by about half on the previous year. This may also be just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to widening inequalities. The communities being hardest hit by the second wave of Covid-19 infection in autumn 2020, are so far, disproportionately more disadvantaged (Barr and Halliday, 2020). Children in these areas are more likely to need to self-isolate, and are more likely to be in families where incomes are cut, or lost entirely given rapidly increasing unemployment figures.  This is borne out in our research: in July, children in schools with high percentages of BAME or low income children were much less likely to be attending school – and our analyses of Understanding Society data (Eivers et al., 2020) illustrates that these children are more likely to be living with someone at high or very high risk from Covid-19. Of course, the social distribution of the pandemic may change, but still those in larger households, BAME households and those in poverty are more likely to be disproportionately negatively impacted.  Our conclusion – the extent of missed learning means that catch-up is not just a one-off event affecting this year, but will need to continue for quite some time and there is much evidence to suggest it needs to be targeted at lower income groups.

Improving remote learning

Even with the best IT equipment and perfect engagement levels children were likely to be behind because teachers had only covered two thirds, on average, of the curriculum in July.  While evidence from the Education Endowment Foundation  (2020) cites the benefits of technology for revision and consolidation, the lack of progress with the curriculum is stark.  Of course, there is variation in how much teachers had covered, but it does pose a question regarding how to effectively convey, teach and engage children with new content remotely.

What we can say, is that engagement with remote learning was higher where schools used a virtual learning environment; where there was some form of interaction between teachers and pupils; and teachers and pupils had sufficient IT access.  Private schools were much more likely to be providing online live lessons,  but state schools, challenged with new technology and safeguarding guidance were some-way behind. Training, good software, and overcoming safeguarding issues, will be key to the further quality of remote learning (Cullinane and Montacute, 2020).


The evidence that we collated has been shared widely and can be used to improve provision moving forward.  However a more visible role for a social scientist, alongside the economists and epidemiologists from the beginning would  have provided a more effective path, with better thought through plans for:  keeping schools open and resourcing them effectively; delivering remote learning and ensuring that teachers and children could engage with it; and mitigating against the impact on more disadvantaged communities.  The focus of this article is clearly on education, however the increased spread of the virus in disadvantaged areas was predictable and has played out, it is adding to the disproportionate impact on the most vulnerable children’s education outcomes, which will hamper their chances long term.  With a more visable role for social science calls for sufficient financial support for those isolating right from the beginning may have been heeded, reducing transmission and negative outcomes in physical and mental health and the economy, and not just in terms of education.

Photo credit: element5-Digital on Unsplash

About the author

Angela Donkin has an international reputation as an expert on early years and inequalities in children’s attainment. As an expert on tackling inequality, and from over 25 years working in government and academia, her specialist knowledge covers children, education, work, income, and healthcare. She is Chief Social Scientist at NFER and was previously Deputy Director of the UCL Institute of Health Equity (IHE), known widely for its work on the social determinants of health.