The continuing impact of COVID on education
Thursday January 21 2021
As we approach the one-year anniversary of the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, it is important to re-examine the continuing hardships that the pandemic places on different groups, including the significant hurdles faced by students in the UK– particularly those from BAME backgrounds.
Following the Education Secretary, Gavin Williamson’s, announcement that 2021 exams will be replaced by teacher assessments, old concerns about the potential for unconscious bias resulting in students from BAME backgrounds being predicted lower grades than they are capable of achieving have resurfaced.
Furthermore, many students who lack the appropriate facilities and equipment to maximise the ability to learn effectively at home are stuck in a state of limbo as they continue to wait for the Government to deliver
s on its promise to provide laptops to those in need.
Assurances and a robust mechanism to protect against detrimental outcomes to students in our country are needed as much now as they were prior to the Summer 2020 exams.
Despite Mr Williamson’s statement that the teacher-assessed grades will be supplemented by training in an effort to ensure their fairness and consistency, he falls short of specifying the widespread problem of the under-prediction of the achievements of university applicants from disadvantaged backgrounds. A study carried out for the Sutton Trust in 2017 found that almost 3,000 high-achieving students from disadvantaged backgrounds – including those hailing from a BAME background – had their grades under-predicted. Nick Hillman, the director of the Higher Education Policy Institute echoed these findings, saying “predictions are just very, very flaky, and sometimes people game the system. They’re intentionally wrong.”
The above study suggests that the fear of being predicted a lower grade has merit, particularly if you are from a disadvantaged community. Furthermore, whilst the study referred to is almost 4 years old, little has been done in the way of mitigating the problems it represents, suggesting a dearth of materials capable of resolving this problem.
The under-prediction of grades is often based on stereotypes, and this is particularly true for students from BAME backgrounds. Professor Kalwant Bhopal, the director of Birmingham University’s Centre for Research in Race and Education said: “there’s a lot of evidence to show that there are stereotypes around particular types of students, so their predicted grades are lower, and when they do the exam they do better than their predicted grade…students who are from white, middle-class, affluent backgrounds will do very well from these predicted grades, especially those from private schools.”
As a result, teaching unions and the Department for Education should scale up their collaboration with community groups and organisations to develop effective training resources for schools and teachers aimed at correcting the under-prediction of grades of students from disadvantaged backgrounds, and combating the stereotypes that often underpin this problem.
Whilst this problem of unconscious bias is not one restricted to the pandemic, the reality is that the reliance on predicted grades at such a time is further compounded by other consequences of disadvantage (such as household overcrowding and a lack of study space or equipment), which makes it particularly dangerous for the educational futures of students from BAME backgrounds.
Indeed, access to equipment such as stable WIFI and laptops is an ongoing concern for families across the country. Promises by the Government to provide laptops to schoolchildren in need of them have yet to be fulfilled. Some reports are even suggesting that these devices promised by the Government may only come once the school year has actually ended. Ofcom found that around 9% of children in the UK – up to 1.78 million – don’t have access to a laptop, desktop, or tablet at home, with 880,000 of them coming from households which rely solely on a mobile internet connection.
Unless the Government prioritises bridging this “digital divide”, disadvantaged students risk falling even further behind their more fortunate peers. This concern is aggravated when considering the continued failure of the Government to provide free school meals and sufficient food parcels for schoolchildren from England’s poorest families during the pandemic – a failure the Prime Minister Boris Johnson himself described as “appalling”. How can disadvantaged schoolchildren be expected to learn whilst hungry, let alone keep up with the progress being made by their more privileged counterparts?
Consequently, it is essential that the Government and the Department for Education immediately publish a comprehensive strategy for prioritising the welfare of disadvantaged children, including through ensuring that these children have the basic necessities required for them to complete their studies, such as food and equipment. At the same time, real attention must be paid to developing training strategies and procedures to address the impacts of unconscious bias on their ongoing attainment and future progression.
As for how you can support disadvantaged schoolchildren in need of laptops, the BBC has put together a helpful guide here on the companies and charities able to help, as well as detailing how you can access a device if you are in need.