Reflections: The impact of school closures on disadvantaged students and the attainment gap

We’ve all been there: It’s halfway through break time and you’re just about to head to the other side of school to set up for your rather ‘excitable’ Year 10 class. At which point the little year 7 lad from your tutor group walks in, his world about to end because he thought he’d left his PE kit in your room, only to find that he now has no idea where it is. Gallantly you drop everything and first embark on this wild goose chase with him, leaving your chances of making it to period 3 on time hanging by a thread. Regardless, you set off at a pace which is not quite running, but a type of speed-walk that is reserved only for teachers such as yourself and competitors in one of those slightly bizarre walking races at the Olympics.

As we all know however, this is far from the end of your intrepid journey. On the way you see the year 11 girl, who is usually challenging in your lesson but was brilliant yesterday, and you mention it again. You then remind two year 8s that you’re looking forward to their next piece of homework being as good as it was last week. Add to that the comforting of the year 10 girl who’s fallen out with her friends, helping the lost year 7 to her next lesson and copping some flak from the group of year 9 boys whose team beat yours 4-0 last night, and you start to wonder if you’ll ever actually make it to period 3.

You do of course eventually arrive for your lesson, now chastising yourself for being late and unprepared because Year 10 deserve better, and almost certainly having forgotten about those inconvenient encounters on the way already.

What we should remember however, is that those encounters will have been anything but inconvenient for the students, and will absolutely not have been forgotten. In fact, for some of those students it will have been the single most positive contact that they will have had with an adult all day.

While these interactions are undoubtedly important for all students, the excellent Marc Rowland, talking on a recent podcast hosted by Sandringham Research School, said something which really resonated and suggested that they are even more vital for our disadvantaged students:

‘It’s a thousand little moments that lead to great attainment for disadvantaged pupils rather than those big, shiny interventions.’

Clearly Marc is suggesting that the majority of these ‘golden moments’, as he puts it, are happening in the classroom, but the impact of these interactions all over the school must not be underestimated.

Fast-forward to today and I would imagine that we would all jump at the chance to be in those busy corridors and classrooms with our students, rather than yet another day glued to our laptops, attempting to communicate with them remotely (whilst, if you’re anything like me, simultaneously trying to peel your own kids off the wall as part of their ‘home learning’).

Herein lies the obvious problem – How can we have these ‘little moments’ with them if we are not able to physically see them? How can we give them that little nudge they need in just the briefest of chats? How can we simply just check that they’re ok? The rather sad answer is, we can’t.

So how might this affect attainment?

Last week the EEF published a rapid evidence assessment (here) on the impact of school closures on the attainment gap between disadvantaged children and their non-disadvantaged peers. The paper suggests that ‘the median estimate indicates that the gap would widen by 36%.’ However, there is a high level of uncertainty due to estimates varying substantially between studies and it rather worryingly goes on to claim that ‘Plausible “good” and “bad” estimates range from the gap widening from 11% to 75%.’

It would be easy to argue that these estimates are somewhat unhelpful. Obviously there is the main issue of the wildly different numbers being suggested and the fact that these will vary hugely between schools in different contexts, mainly due to the lack of research as clearly we’ve never seen anything like this before. There is also the issue, particularly in the secondary phase, of gaps developing at varying rates in different subjects when students are not in school (Gershenson, 2017). Perhaps even more important to consider however is that these can do absolutely nothing to tell us about the impact on individual children or their needs: We are all working incredibly hard (as are the vast majority of our students) to support them remotely but we must accept that some will be engaging more than others, regardless of them being labelled ‘disadvantaged’ or not. On their return to school, it will be our job to make sure that every one of them is OK, irrespective of whether we estimate our gap to be nearer 11% or 75%.

But how can we limit the impact at the moment?

The EEF report reinforces that ‘Supporting effective remote learning will mitigate the extent to which the gap widens.’ It goes on to say that rather than concerning ourselves with the manner in which lessons are provided, we must ensure that the key elements of high quality teaching are as present as possible:

  • Clear explanations
  • Effective scaffolding
  • Quality feedback

As a College these were the precisely the things discussed with regards to setting work remotely before closure, and feedback from our students and parents would suggest that these measures have made the process far easier and remote lessons far more accessible. The careful tracking of engagement of all students has been vitally important and has allowed our brilliant pastoral team to continue engaging with parents in two-way communication. This is, again, something that the EEF report suggests is imperative for limiting any attainment gaps and something that our parents are hugely appreciative of, particularly when so many nationally are reportedly struggling with supporting home learning (IFS, 2020). For a more detailed look at the considerations when setting work remotely, our very own Mark Enser has written this helpful piece on TES which mirrors and expands on the points above.

What about when we all return? (It will happen one day!)

The EEF report suggests that no single intervention will be adequate in supporting disadvantaged students on their return, but that sustained support, properly informed as a result of effective diagnostic assessment, will be key. Investing in high quality professional development for staff is also outlined as important, indicating the key battleground to be the classroom (as if it was ever anywhere else?!)

We will certainly do what we have always done as a College and focus our efforts in the classroom, aiming to support students based on the individual needs that they have developed a result of this situation, rather than any labels possibly acquired along the way. We will continue to create those ‘golden moments’ in and out of the classroom, so students feel their contributions and presence is truly valued. In the same podcast mentioned earlier, Marc Rowland suggests that these moments can have a significant influence on school attendance and I have absolutely no doubt that the amazing relationships our staff have with our students has been the single biggest factor in the continuing improvement in attendance for disadvantaged students over the last four years.

And let’s not be foolish enough to think that students themselves don’t pick up on these things.  Just a few days ago I was talking to a lovely colleague who brightened up my day (in fairness, I was in an hour-long queue for the rubbish dump, so it wouldn’t have taken much) by telling me that an ex-student whom she’d recently met up with had commented on how we ‘just get it right’ in the relationships that we develop with our vulnerable students.

So the next time you’re struggling on your way to your next lesson, carrying a pile of books that you can barely see over, rapidly running out of time to visit the loo, feel free to forget about those slightly inconvenient questions from students on the way. Or the next time that you’re teaching (again, it will happen!) and that student is trying to hide their smile after you’ve just said how amazing their response was, feel free to move on to the next thing without too much thought. Just know that the students won’t do this. Because these are the little moments that make the difference for disadvantaged students, for all students, in a way that no amount of intervention or catch-up plan ever will.

Ben Pollard, Pupil Premium Lead

2 thoughts on “Reflections: The impact of school closures on disadvantaged students and the attainment gap

  1. Simply brilliant. It’s always great to see the things that you do and value so well articulated! The non-measurable anecdotal things that make a difference. Thank you for writing this.


  2. Pingback: Blogs on remote teaching | Class Teaching

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