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Children’s learning held back by digital schooling, NAO report finds

Children’s socio-economic status has affected their experiences with digital learning, and most teachers consider their pupils to be, on average, three months behind where they would be expected to be

The Department for Education’s response to facilitate online education during the Covid-19 pandemic could have been more effective, according to the National Audit Office (NAO).

An NAO report on children’s education during Covid-19 has found that although the department quickly took action when the pandemic hit, parts of its response could have been done better and been more effective in “mitigating the learning that pupils lost as a result of the disruption”.

When the first lockdown came into force on 23 March 2020, the department had no pre-existing plan in place, and quickly had to find a way to support all children, including those who were vulnerable. But it was not until June 2020 that it had a plan with objectives in place, said the NAO report.

“The department targeted the provision of IT equipment towards children most in need of support,” it said. “It recognised that the ability of vulnerable and disadvantaged children to learn remotely and access online social care services was likely to be hampered by a lack of suitable devices and internet access.

“The department did not aim to provide equipment to all children who lacked it. In early April, it considered providing laptops or tablets, and 4G routers (with paid-for internet access), for vulnerable children and those in all ‘priority groups’ who did not have access. This would have involved providing 602,000 laptops or tablets and 100,000 routers in total.

“The department decided to reduce this number due to the practical difficulty of supplying devices on this scale. It ultimately sought to provide equipment to all children with a social worker and care leavers, and disadvantaged pupils in year 10 only.”

The department also provided funding to the Oak National Academy, which offers video lessons and online resources to schools and pupils. In January 2021, BT announced that customers using its mobile networks to access the Oak National Academy would not be charged for data used when accessing the site.

Children from disadvantaged backgrounds also struggled more with online learning than those from higher-income families. The NAO report said that in May 2020, children from higher-income families spent 30% more time on remote learning, compared with children in lower-income families.

Children also had contrasting experiences with remote learning resources provided by schools and the level of contact with teachers. The NAO report referenced research from the Institute for Fiscal Studies which found that at secondary level, “the type of school-led provision varied by economic status”.

“Some 82% of secondary pupils in private schools had received active help, such as online classes, or video and text chat,” it said. “By contrast, 64% of secondary pupils in state schools from the richest one-fifth of households received active help, compared with 47% of pupils from the poorest one-fifth.

“Schools in more deprived areas may have held back from adopting online activities to limit the impact of pupils’ unequal digital access at home.”

Read more about online learning

  • The UK government’s sudden decision to close schools left many either unprepared or unable to provide children with online schooling, so what does home learning currently look like for children across the UK?
  • Labour MPs have written to government officials urging them to provide schools and children with the digital provisions necessary to ensure every child can properly work from home during lockdown.
  • BT has announced that customers using its mobile networks to access the Oak National Academy will not be charged for data used when accessing the site. 

The report also found that remote learning had affected the wellbeing of some children, as well as their education, with children feeling more stressed about school work and exams.

Another survey, by the National Foundation for Educational Research, found that 97% of teachers considered their pupils, on average, three months behind where they would normally expect them to be in their curriculum learning by the end of 2019/20.

NAO head Gareth Davies said the disruption caused by the pandemic was an unprecedented challenge for the Department for Education.

“During the early months, the department gave schools considerable discretion in how they supported their pupils, which reduced demands on schools but contributed to wide variation in the education and support that children received,” he said.

“The evidence shows that children’s learning and development has been held back by the disruption to normal schooling. It is crucial that the department monitors the impact of its catch-up arrangements, particularly on disadvantaged children, and acts on the results.”

Computer Weekly reported in January 2021 that the latest lockdown had led to further struggles with digital schooling.

Research from communications regulator Ofcom estimated that between 1.14 million and 1.78 million children in the UK do not have access to a laptop or device for home schooling, and 7% of households can only access the internet through mobile connectivity.

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