Mind the Gap: What can we do about disadvantaged students as schools remain closed?

9th June 2020

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During school closure, the gap between disadvantaged students and their peers is widening. However, there are concrete steps we can take to mitigate this crisis, whilst keeping safe.

Disadvantaged students are at the heart of what we do at Your Favourite Teacher. As a group of current and former teachers serving very disadvantaged communities, we’ve always been most focused on helping young people break the poverty cycle and broaden their life chances.

Never has there been a more important time to focus on this goal.

Closing schools during the pandemic was unquestionably the right thing to do. However, without daily contact and support from school staff, students are more vulnerable to violence, abuse and neglect. One tragic consequence of school closure is that when they’re open again, not every student will come back.

Why is the Gap widening?

Disadvantaged Students Progress

No matter how hard we work to support students learning at home, we know it’s more home than learning. Without a daily routine, robust support and checking, and regular assessment, it’s hard for young people (and adults!) to keep going at the same pace. This is especially so for disadvantaged students, who are less likely to have the key ingredients:

  • A quiet, personal space for learning at home
  • Parents with high levels of education and spare time to support their learning efforts
  • Books, revision guides and other resources to aid learning
  • Sufficient access to laptops and tablets for learning
  • Sufficiently fast internet access

The Education Endowment Foundation’s Rapid Evidence Assessment suggests the ‘Gap’ will widen about 36%, and that students will need long-term support to catch up.

Despite the Government’s 19th of April pledge to deliver laptops and mobile broadband routers to disadvantaged Year 10 families in May and June, it’s unclear whether any have actually been delivered so far. Schools which have placed orders have been told they will only receive a fraction of those needed, leaving many students out of luck. And of course, there are all the other year groups to consider. Whilst we’re waiting for the Government to catch up, schools are working hard to get essential IT resources to their students.

This serves to highlight just how important school pastoral support is to keep students safe. Now as the Government encourages schools to open to more students, we face a dilemma; as The Guardian puts it, ‘a choice between danger and disadvantage.’

Danger or Disadvantage?

Education is extraordinarily important; but not as important as your life. No matter the consequence, we need young people, school staff and families to be safe above all else.

Schools are working very hard to make sure reopening is safe, but we need to be realistic; it won’t be quick. In the meantime, we should take note of the Education Endowment Foundation’s evidence about effective Distance Learning. We need to make a plan which will sustain, challenge and support our young people for perhaps the next 6 months or more!

1. Remote learning can be effective if it’s well structured.

The principles are similar, whether it’s face to face or not. Have a clear learning sequence and specific focus for a session of learning. Give clear explanations and scaffolding. Provide clear feedback on what has been learned, and how well. Of course there are many ways of achieving this; at YFT when we design our lessons we start with a video filled with clear teacher explanation, examples and graphics. Then we move deeper into topics and worksheets so that students can explore and apply their learning. Finally we have exam questions and multi-choice quizzes to help them ‘prove it’. At the end of this process, students are clear on what they have learned, and what their gaps are. They can follow up by reviewing course content or asking their teacher!

2. Help students to manage their learning independently.

Just like many of us had to re-establish routines and methods to work well at home, students do too. And they need our support. Disadvantaged students are particularly likely to benefit from support in this area – give daily plans, checklists or co-plan with students to ensure they have a sense of ownership and responsibility for their learning, and strategies to stay on track.  Some of our YFT schools and clubs have daily or weekly challenges set for the students, or even coin goals; how students achieve these is up to them. (We’re also working on some behavioural techniques such as coin streaks, ranks and work programmes to keep students coming back and building good habits – more to come on this soon!).

3. Adapt. No one strategy works for every child, subject or content.

There’s a place for multi-choice quizzes but they aren’t useful for testing deeper understanding or how students construct complex evaluations of challenging questions. Games can motivate and engage, but shouldn’t be used for formal grading. Research projects can be helpful, but only if they require students to do more than Google a collection of facts.

4. Peer interactions help keep students motivated.

That doesn’t mean you should start a class Instagram; it means give students chances to work together from home, and have online discussion times when you can. We’re all missing each others’ faces and casual chit-chat too, so a chance to wave at each others’ pets and admire creative lockdown haircuts might give your students something to look forward to.

A Hybrid Approach

Of course we think YFT is a no-brainer, as it supports young people with clearly sequenced, challenging and relevant learning. However whatever tools you use, the key is combine content and teacher. For example, set some online activities (perhaps our fantastic video on Love and Marriage in Romeo & Juliet), or planning an essay question, and then using synchronous ‘live lesson’ time to discuss and question. This approach means teachers don’t need to prepare elaborate video lessons, share screens and ‘perform’ for students, whilst monitoring their focus and wrangling the technology. They can provide the best support to students be discussing the topics and getting to the bottom of confusion and misconceptions, which also helps them to understand how well students are learning. Shorter face-to-face time means students are less likely to ‘tune out’ during lengthy explanations. It’s a win all-round!

Home learning is not the same as being in school, and we shouldn’t pretend it is. There are big challenges coming, but if we think carefully about our remote learning approach we can get  ahead start on the solution.

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