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Better data sharing needed to help children during pandemic

Closing gaps in data infrastructure will help the education sector respond better to children’s needs during the Covid-19 pandemic, says Open Data Institute

The Open Data Institute (ODI) has urged civil society organisations and social media platforms to share data they hold about the needs of children, teachers and parents safely, after finding that gaps in data infrastructure make it difficult to quantify the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic on children’s wellbeing and education.

In a report, Data about children’s lives in the pandemic, published on 10 November, the ODI said the lack of granular, real-time data about the effects of the coronavirus crisis and consequent lockdowns on children’s learning and wellbeing was a significant shortcoming.

“Existing research is – with some exceptions – published two to three months, on average, after data collection has been carried out, leading to a lack of timely data in the context of this constantly evolving crisis situation,” said the report. “There are also gaps in data on how impacts on education have changed at different points in time since the coronavirus outbreak in March.”

The ODI added that better data access would ensure that new issues related to the pandemic could be swiftly detected and dealt with.

“In the context of an unpredictable crisis like this, access to up-to-the-minute data is more important than ever,” the report said. “Government, teachers, head teachers and policy-makers urgently require access to accurate, current data to understand how periods away from school have affected, and are affecting, pupils’ learning and emotional wellbeing.

“Availability of reliably updated data would assist with the development of strategies for assisting those pupils who are hit hardest by the impacts of emergency school closures due to Covid-19.”

ODI managing director Louise Burke added that without new and more detailed real-time data, it is much more difficult to target resources effectively and respond to emerging issues promptly.

“Organisations like Barnardo’s and Mumsnet, that share their data – or make it open – in an ethical and safe way can help those who want to monitor, understand and address the challenges that teachers, parents and children are facing, and provide direct support,” she said.

To demonstrate how data about the needs of children, teachers and parents could be shared in safe and ethical ways at short notice, the ODI worked with children’s charity Barnardo’s and UK-based social network for parents Mumsnet throughout September and October to assess the impact the pandemic has had on these groups.

Using a combination of data sources – including new data analyses directly from Barnardo’s and Mumsnet, open government data from the Department for Education and Department for Work and Pensions, a survey of over 6,500 teachers across England, and 29 qualitative teacher interviews conducted by education data startup MyEd – it found a number of worrying trends.

For example, it discovered that referrals of newly vulnerable children to Barnardo’s new See, Hear, Respond service increased to almost 7,000 in mid-October, once children were back at school and no longer “hidden” from teachers and other professionals during lockdown; and that two-thirds of teachers feel that one-fifth or more of their class are behind in their learning, with 8% believing that “almost all” are behind.

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It also found the term “stress” featured five times more frequently in education-related Mumsnet posts from April when compared to January, and “mental health” was among the 10 most frequent phrases used in September.

On top of this, two-thirds (62%) of the teachers surveyed said keeping schools “Covid secure” was a big daily challenge. This was echoed in the MyEd interview, in which teachers said hygiene routines, social distancing measurements and keeping class bubbles separate were taking up a significant amount of their time and planning.

The report also highlighted the need for collecting more data on different socio-economic groups, because “a lack of information on the perspectives of families from low socio-economic status could potentially reinforce their marginalised position”.

The ODI pointed out, for example, that teachers’ testimonies from the survey and interviews could be open to personal the bias of individual teachers, and the fact that most of the research was conducted via digital platforms meant people from lower socio-economic backgrounds were far more likely to be excluded.

“In 2019, 51% of households earning between £6,000 and £10,000 had access to the internet at home, compared to 99% of households with an income of £40,000,” it said. “Families of low socio-economic status are, therefore, likely to be excluded from research that is carried out via digital media platforms.”

To create a more efficient data infrastructure to help identify and deal with issues facing children during a constantly evolving crisis, the ODI recommended, in line with its work on data institutions, creating new data stewardship arrangements.  

“There is a need to collect timely data on a repeated and ongoing basis, that documents the changing needs of different groups of pupils, families and teachers within the current period of uncertainty,” it said.

“This data needs to include the needs of children and families from disadvantaged socio-economic status, and of those without access to digital technologies. Collecting this data can provide a clearer picture of the needs of the most vulnerable groups in society and may require non-digital approaches.

“Data needs to be shared and opened up in a safe way, to enable a variety of analyses that can inform organisations, policymakers and schools in their work with children, families and teachers. This includes data that is stewarded by civil society organisations and social media platforms, as well as those in the education sector.”

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