With schools across England and Wales now unlocking their gates, there are understandably a few mixed emotions at play among parents, teachers and the schoolchildren themselves.
On the one hand, there’s a lot of support for getting kids back to the classroom. A survey conducted by the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER) found that, on average, pupils are three months behind where they should be because of lockdown, so now’s definitely the time to catch up. However, that’s not to say that concerns for children’s safety have completely vanished and that everyone will be in school when the register is taken on day one.
Last term, only 56 percent of eligible pupils actually attended school in-person amidst parents’ concerns over safety and in Scotland, where children have been returning to school since August 11, attendance is down by tens of thousands, with Scottish teaching union, EIS, saying it believes parents are erring on the side of caution when it came to cold symptoms and keeping their children at home. This gives some indication as to what attendance might be like across England and Wales this month.
On top of this, there’s also the possibility that some pupils will have no option but to learn from home again this term. Recent official guidance means entire year groups could be asked to self-isolate in the event of a confirmed case of Covid-19 at their school, while an outbreak or local lockdown could see secondary school pupils asked to remain at home every other fortnight as part of a rota system implemented to break the chain of transmission. Furthermore, if cases among pupils continued to increase, there is a chance that each and every student at that school would have to stay at home.
With the prospect of remote learning still very much a reality, it is good to see that the government is offering support in the form of laptops and hotspot provision. Because while schools are doing everything they can to prepare and adapt so that children still have a safe place to learn effectively, there is one thing that can bridge the gap between students and their teachers if they can’t be in the classroom: broadband.
Gavin Williamson, Education Secretary, said, “By providing young people with these laptops and tablets and enabling schools to access high quality support, we will enable all children to continue learning now and in the years to come.”
But the real key to making sure learning is disrupted as little as possible at the moment must be ensuring that pupils have easy access to a decent broadband connection while they’re at home. So although Department for Education has made some investment into remote education recently, the question that needs to be asked is how it will help ‘all’ children; in other words how does this investment help those households who need it most?
Some families, for example those living in more rural or isolated areas, have insufficient bandwidth to accommodate online education, especially if they have more than one school-age child, as well as parents working from home.
For many pupils, the idea of participating in an online Zoom class or viewing a video tutorial on Oak Academy is unthinkable – dropped connections and buffering make it impossible. Without access to speeds fast enough to support this new way of teaching, schoolchildren in these households are in danger of dropping even further behind.
Some efforts have been made to provide the more rural schools with better connectivity; in February last year, the government launched a £3m pilot scheme to connect more than 100 rurally located schools with a gigabit-capable broadband connection. This is a great step but doesn’t help if pupils aren’t able to get to their schools in the first place.
Going back to school is a welcome relief for many kids, as it offers a chance to interact and socialise with friends as well as giving them access to essential in-person teaching. Yet keeping schools open has become a precarious balancing act between education and safety.
Without decent broadband speeds at home, the systems and guidance being implemented to keep the pupils safe will inadvertently affect their learning and their life chances. This will also mean that children without access to decent broadband at home will likely be at an ever-increasing disadvantage compared to the ones who do.