Using lockdown to tackle inequality in education

The questions we should be asking to shape a more equitable future

Science Teacher

 “Your practice is discriminatory and puts whole groups of students at a disadvantage.” A statement no teacher or institution wants to hear. But, a statement that we should be asking ourselves as a profession – now more than ever.

Let’s start with the known facts. The GCSE attainment gap that exists between disadvantaged students and their more affluent peers has stopped closing. When disadvantaged students finish their secondary school education they are likely to be 18 months behind their peers (Hutchinson et al, 2019). In the context of Newham, where I teach, a student from a middle-class background could miss an entire year of schooling and still be ahead of a student from a working-class background in terms of attainment. Or, the children of a family with two parents in stable employment will remain ahead of the children of a family with one parent that has sessional employment.

This scenario has been exacerbated by the closure of schools, with, according to some reports,  decades of work aimed at closing the attainment gap being completely reversed by COVID-19 (Education Policy Institute, 2020). Many teachers across the country are working to provide teaching and learning online. However, it is unknown whether serious consideration has been given to the long-term impact that our online practices could have on equity. In this instance, the term equity refers firstly to fairness – ensuring that personal and social circumstances do not provide a barrier to achieving educational potential. Secondly to inclusion – ensuring a basic minimum standard of education for all students. At present our online practices have further disadvantaged some groups of students because they have not taken into account equity. 

Below I will use a series of questions to consider the impact of teaching practices at this point in time, and when schools eventually return.

1. Is providing access to teaching and learning enough for all students during lockdown?

If you’re fortunate enough to be part of a school that can provide students with access to technology and a stable internet connection then you have overcome the first hurdle. This is no small feat as you have provided a modicum of normality during what is an incredibly disruptive period. But, how does this affect equity? Some students will have a home environment that may be very similar to your own. Many will have a room full of books and a desk or table to work at. However, when considering equity there is a need to look beyond what is familiar and will fit for the majority. Students will be sharing the spaces in their households with parents, even siblings. Immediately this limits the ability to access support being provided. Some students will be responsible for caring for their siblings or older relatives whilst their parents attempt to continue working from home. Others will simply not have the bandwidth to sustain multiple people accessing the internet simultaneously.

Providing access will not address the disadvantage or attainment gaps. Access alone is likely to maintain or contribute to this disadvantage. A major factor is that virtual student presence in a classroom does not guarantee learning. 

However, there are numerous factors that can make a difference (Dunlosky et al, 2013). The home environment (where and when students are able to work) and the level of adult support are likely to influence the quality of learning. Where these things are not always available in the home, we need to consider how to replicate them virtually. An equitable approach would investigate how to limit the impact of lesson timings, and how to create teacher support that is always accessible.

2. What should be considered when providing teaching and learning online?

As teachers, we may not be able to influence the spaces in homes that are available to students but we can influence the time we make available. It is important to consider how time is structured and when support is provided. Cullane and Montacute (2020) suggest only 23% of pupils were able to access daily online learning. Of this 23%, there was a notable gap between students of working-class (16%) and middle-class (30%) backgrounds. Barriers such as caring responsibilities, or the need to share devices and bandwidth are more likely to affect students from disadvantaged backgrounds. A rationale for this in Newham is that more households will be made up of multiple generations. Whereas in affluent areas of the country you may have a family consisting of two generations – parents and children. In Newham this is more likely to be three or four, with grandparents and extended family part of the household.

So what support should be offered to disadvantaged students? Providing clear explanations and structured feedback are some of the key findings to ensuring quality instruction and student motivation (Education Endowment Foundation, 2020). Pre-recording explanations using multiple examples or analogies allows students to access quality instruction at any time. Critiquing these explanations alongside your subject team can provide the added benefit of improving teacher pedagogy whilst ensuring that all students are able to access quality teaching and learning.  

Providing feedback on student work is a key part of teaching and learning. Small class sizes and 1:1 tuition both afford students more individual time with a teacher. This time is often spent guiding the student’s path to improvement and correcting individual errors. Considering some students may not be able to access online lessons and receive any feedback, pre-recording whole-class feedback may be an equitable approach that supports the majority of students. As with recorded explanations, attempting to limit accessibility issues should be a priority.

3. If access is not enough and it is difficult to influence the home circumstances of many students, what should change in schools when students return?

There is a risk that well-meaning institutions and individuals will transition from maintaining or closing, to actively contributing to and building gaps between students. As suggested above, there is no way of guaranteeing access and support will equate to learning. However, this realisation can be the stimulus for reflections and actions that can actively contribute to the closing of attainment and disadvantage gaps when schools eventually do return. 

There are two main reflection points to consider. What are the structural practices within your institution that contribute to gaps between students? What are the individual teaching practices that are knowingly or unknowingly contributing to students experiencing disadvantage?

Lockdown can provide the time and space to think about the structures (systems, policies and processes) that are contributing the attainment and disadvantage gaps discussed above. Questions such as “Why do we teach our subject in sets or streams? How does this impact different groups of students?”  can lead to critical review of common structures and teaching practices.

4. Structural practices vs Individual practices

We have tried to differentiate between the practices that occur as a result of the systems and processes of the department, and the practices that can be attributed to the actions of an individual. Structural practices refer to the organisation, systems and processes that exist in the daily running of a department or school. This would include how students are grouped into classes, assessed to determine progress and identified for support.

Differentiating in this way allows us to consider changes that can be made at the present moment that may benefit all students and improve practice when school resumes. Below there is an attempt to highlight a process of decision making that could lead to much greater equality in teaching and learning practices given how COVID 19 is widening the disadvantage gap. 

Having equity as a guide for making decisions can work to consciously rebuild the damage done by COVID-19.  It seemed important to start conversations as a small group and then radiate our discussions to begin a wider discourse about equity. 

Starting with a consultation with our Head of Department and Subject Leaders we aimed to collect views on equity in the teaching and learning of science. The consultation consisted of a round table discussion of talking points, each aimed at a particular structure within our school context. 

  • Do we believe it is important to have equity as a guide for all of our decision making? 
  • Should every class be mixed ability with one nurture class for ELC and Low KS2 prior attainers in each year group? 
  • How do we fairly identify students for a nurture cohort and transition these students so they are attaining as well as their peers?
  • If every student studied triple science, would this be a more equitable approach to the teaching and learning of science? 

These talking points may not be appropriate for every context. However, for School 21 they are the basis of a discussion that encourages thinking about every child. As a department we resoundingly agree that equity should be at the heart of our decision making processes. In reality, this means that our decision-making processes have shifted slightly. We now have greater consideration about the impact on disadvantaged students. Each decision is guided by relevant literature and evidence that supports our choices to be more equitable. 

5. Individual Practices

Thinking about the structural changes that could be made during lockdown also prompted thought about individual practices. By individual practices I refer to the pedagogies and actions that take place within the classroom. 

There is an unfortunate reality that many practices which take place in the classroom contribute to attainment gaps and by proxy disadvantage gaps. Often many of these practices are unconscious and their effects insidious in nature. To overcome this we are attempting to remove the unconscious element from our biases. 

Attempting to view our biases has involved being critical of common practices often seen in classrooms and considering the explicit and implicit impact of these practices.

One of our brilliant physicists, Thom has launched an Institute of Physics project aimed at improving gender balance in STEM subjects. Through this we have started to consider how language, differentiation and questioning can subtly lead to widening gender and disadvantage gaps.

During lockdown we have identified the following individual practices we will study with a view to delivering evidence and literature based CPD on when school returns. 

  • Language – How we talk about, and to students in a non-biased way.
  • High Expectations – How do we set and maintain a high expectation for all our students with different tiers, qualifications and prior attainment. 
  • Questioning – What type of questions are we asking students. Who are we asking these types of questions to? What is the impact of our questioning practice? 
  • Differentiation – Is differentiation by outcome an inequitable and limiting practice? 
  • Diversity – Ensuring that the curriculum is representative of the students and tells the often forgotten stories of science.

To finish, I would love to hear from others having similar considerations on the disadvantage and attainment gaps. It would be great to start a discourse around improving our practices to ensure greater equality.

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