March 2021 update
By David Bradley, England Development Manager (Cost of the School Day), Child Poverty Action Group
For the majority of children and young people up and down the country, school doors closed once more in January after just one day back in the classroom. Families were faced both with the prospect of home schooling children and with the challenges this presented for their household finances. As with the first school closures last year, Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG) and Children North East (CNE) wanted to hear directly from parents, carers, children and young people about what home learning was like for them. While the findings provide a snapshot of life in January and February 2021, the insights remain critical in helping us to understand how we can recover from the impact of the pandemic.
Parents and carers told us that they were struggling financially going into this lockdown and subsequently faced increasing costs and pressures which, despite their best efforts, have affected their children’s experiences of learning during lockdown. Many low-income families faced the impossible choice of prioritising who gets access to scarce resources like laptops, bandwidth and one-to-one supervision. 35 per cent of low income families, who responded to our survey, were still missing essential resources for learning and children in receipt of free school meals were more likely to report sharing devices at home and using mobile phones to complete schoolwork.
In spite of these challenges, we heard about the extraordinary lengths that parents and carers were going to in order to help their children continue learning. We heard of mums waking up early to write out worksheets by hand and parents walking to school every day to pick up work packs. Families described how school staff worked tirelessly to deliver the best possible education in the circumstances, going above and beyond to try and bridge the gaps in resources where they could. This included lending out laptops, delivering printouts, supplying stationery and adjusting teaching to help all learners join in. Local councils also played an important role in getting additional support and resources to schools and families.
It’s clear from the findings that many families need greater financial security to help them support children’s learning, stay afloat and recover from the impact of the pandemic. As pupils ease back in to school, we need to recognise the role that family income plays in a child’s education and shape our responses accordingly. Families described facing difficult decisions around home learning because they didn’t have everything they needed to support their children. This ‘permanent battle’ caused stress and guilt for parents and often left less time to focus on learning. Any education recovery plan should place an emphasis on anti-poverty interventions in schools such as expanding the eligibility for free school meals to boost family finances and implementing extended schools provisions, to focus on pupil’s mental health and wellbeing and support parents in to work.
The challenges and inequalities faced by low income families may have been made more acute by the pandemic, but they existed before COVID-19 and they’ll continue to exist in our education system long after the crisis unless the government, local authorities, and schools work together to implement poverty aware policies and practices. During the autumn term, many schools worked hard to relieve cost pressures on families. For example, families told us that relaxed uniform policies had helped ease pressure on household budgets, allowing greater flexibility on where items could be purchased. Lots of schools had helped to provide additional items, such as extra stationery, face masks and pencil cases that were required to help keep people safe from the spread of Covid-19. However, the majority of families told us that they hadn’t been supported in this way and many said that school costs had risen compared to previous years.
Through being poverty-aware and considering how policies and practices may impact households on a low income, schools and local authorities can continue to play an important role in relieving pressures on families, removing poverty-related stigma and helping to ensure children have everything they need to take part in education whether at school or at home.
You can find more information on how to achieve this through our Cost of the School Day project here