Why has the pandemic exacerbated the socio-economic educational inequality gap?

Inequality can be understood in two ways, inequality of outcome and inequality in opportunity (Broer et al, 2019). Inequality of outcome refers to how the educational, academic outcomes of students can vary dependent on their social position within society. Whereas inequality in opportunity refers to how an individual’s social position in society can impact the access they have to certain levels or resources for education. Educational inequality can surface through areas based on social class, gender, and race, but since the pandemic the educational inequality gap between social classes has grown exponentially and highlighted the huge discrepancies. Students in society from lower socio-economic backgrounds have been disadvantaged in education by the pandemic through school closures, online-learning, and lack of resources, all of which highlight an inequality in opportunity to succeed in attainment, and ultimately showcasing an inequality of outcomes.

Sophie, a 17-year-old student, is starting her exam season in the final year of secondary school when the pandemic hits. Lockdown beings, school closes. She is an ambitious young woman with hopes to become a doctor, after completing a degree in Medicine. Since the announcement of lockdown and school closures, Sophie has been given a set timetable by her teachers, with various live lessons scheduled into the week, and a direct plan of independent work she should complete and submit for feedback regularly. Sophies parents work in university, so they have started working from home on a flexible routine. They often check-in with Sophie to see how she is coping and managing with her workload and offer support with her academic studies and setting a plan of revision for her upcoming exams. Sophie has her own laptop and mobile that she uses to connect with her friends, classmates, and teachers, so feels she has a lot of support if she needs it and feels confident at being able to complete her studies and perform well for her university application.

Across town, Bradley, another 17-year-old student, is also starting his final year exams. The pandemic causes his school to close during the lockdown period. Bradley has some ideas of what he wants to do when he finishes school but hasn’t had much guidance in how to reach his goal of becoming an engineer. Bradley has 3 younger brothers and his parents have just been made redundant due to the closure of the retail shops they worked in. it is a very small and noisy house, and Bradley finds it extremely difficult to concentrate on studying. His teachers haven’t been clear about the workload and Bradley has no laptop or good internet, so can’t even message his friends to ask for some clarity. Bradley has tried to ask his parents for help, but they know nothing about university or engineering, so just tell him to be realistic and ignore his requests for some support.

It was abundantly clear, pre-pandemic, that the social-class gap within educational attainment was wide, but with restrictions and major changes post-COVID 19 this has widened the already existing gap. Not only have there been direct educational impacts on students from working class households, but there have been indirect impacts from the pandemic including food insecurity and increased poverty. Due to the lockdown and closure of many industries and services, businesses had to shut, and people lost their jobs. Between May and June 2021 1.55 million were unemployed compared to 1.37 million between January and March 2020 pre-pandemic, showing a rise of 0.6% (Powell and Francis-Devine, 2021). One explanation for this increase was due to the increase in redundancies which was at the highest recorded number since records began in 1995, of 402,000 between September and November 2020 (Powell and Francis-Devine, 2021). Another impact of the COVID-19 lockdown was the reduced numbers of vacancies that were then made available, being at a record low of 340,000 in April-June 2020 (Powell and Francis-Devine, 2021). These changes in employment had a consequential effect on the economic status of the country, with a 6% drop in public expenditure (Schleicher, 2020). This was due to middle and upper-class groups, who were unable to spend their spare money on leisure activities, travel, and transport, which is typically where their expenditure was highest (OECD, 2019). This is in comparison to working class groups whose expenditure is highest on essential goods such as food and housing, where they suffered severely in being able to afford, with The Trussell Trust experiencing an 81% increase in emergency food parcels from foodbanks, including a specific rise of 122% parcels given to children (2020). As a result, those from lower income groups had an average monthly decline of £170 per month in their bank balance, due to increased financial pressure and struggles to pay for essential goods (Davenport et al, 2020). Whereas, in drastic comparison, the higher income households saw an increase in forced savings due to the reduction in their typical spending habits (Davenport et al, 2020). More specifically, education was majorly impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, which created a detrimental gap between social classes, and attainment at school. With the closure of schools and the country in lockdown, multiple changes were made to education, with remote learning, online lessons, and removal of formal exams. However, this didn’t come without its disparities. Bradley represents one of 60,000 young people who lacked internet connectivity at home and lived in a one household from 700,000 that did not own a computer, laptop, or tablet device (Children’s Commissioner, 2020a). However, unfortunately, even when limited devices were given to families, like Bradley, from the Government, they lacked quality, and had to be shared between a busy household as a single device. With the lack of internet access and resources available, pupils from working class homes were put at a specific disadvantage for their learning and education journey, because whilst 30% of middle-class children had access to at least one live lesson a day, only 16% of working-class had the same equality of opportunity (Children’s Commissioner, 2020a). However, this was not only due to the lack of resources available for these students, but also a lack of knowledge from teachers and readiness to teach online. As Sophie showcases, it was found that only 40% of state sector teachers felt ready to conduct online video lessons, compared to 69% of teachers from private schools, demonstrating the difference in quality of teaching and confidence given by those with authority in the education system (Montacute, 2020). Sophie demonstrates a common disparity between working-class and middle-class students, due to teacher preparedness, as Sophie felt supported throughout the difficult lockdown period with teachers constantly checking in and giving guidance for her future direction. Not only was this support and guidance given from teachers, but in some households, the parental support and communication was a lot calmer and more structured. With some families, the pandemic created much more tension and animosity at home, due to the increase in economic stress, job insecurity and educational worries. As a result, some students felt isolated and unsafe with the environment they were forced to stay in. Unfortunately, but unsurprisingly, reports state how 93% of students said they were happy to see school friends again and 71% said they felt safe to be back at school (Children’s Commissioner, 2020b). This highlights the importance for, not only academic studies at school, but also the value that education holds for interaction, socialisation, and communication amongst students, which is another area that created disadvantage with the lack of even online interaction for certain social classes. This needs to stop. Interventions need to be put in place. The gap must grow smaller and allow equality for opportunity and outcome to take rise. But how? Firstly, the Government and structural systems need to step up and put policies in place to support those most impacted by the effects of the pandemic. Most importantly, the Government need to provide working-class students with sufficient access to internet and electronic devices for their online learning. Despite the education system beginning to return to pre-pandemic states, there is still an element of blended-online learning, and students having to isolate for small periods of time. Therefore, funding needs to be made available from either Government or charity sources, and their priorities on where money is allocated needs to change. Currently in 2020/21, only £48 billion is spent on secondary education funding (Clark, 2021), compared to £285 billion in 2020 being spent on social protection including aspects such as welfare and pension (Clark, 2020). If more money was spent on allocating working-class children with the same resources for education, young people like Bradley would see significant reduction in the inequality of opportunity and help lessen the gap for equality of outcome in education, between young people like himself and Sophie. Working alongside this, broadband companies need to support the Government by lifting data caps and reducing the prices of tariffs, which would aid the work of the government in funding for these electronic devices (The Guardian, 2020). Secondly, there needs to be more student-centred support for students in higher secondary phases of education due to the lack of formal exams they would have sat during the pandemic. These students need specific, individual guidance on their future path into higher education or the world of work, and as educators, we need to help support them make informed choices and prepare them as best we can. One way in which we support some of the specific pupils in working-class backgrounds who felt the impact of covid-19 the most, is to intervene at a younger age. By getting to those pupils in early secondary stages and even primary school, we can provide information and a catch-up phase due to the lack of school contact and regular education. This early intervention will not only provide valuable information on their education journey and career in the future, but it can help to reduce the detrimental impact of the pandemic on the existing social-economic gap in education. It is vitally important to allow students, like Sophie and Bradley, have the same educational chances and access to achieve the aspirations they have, in order to gain an equality of outcome across society.

Blog by Lorna Lamont


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