The impact of COVID-19 on British education
26 November 2020
The outbreak of Coronavirus in the UK has had an unimaginable and immeasurable impact across the country. But one institution has been particularly hard struck; the British education system.
In March, the Government announced all exams in England would not go ahead this year. Havoc spread amongst panicked students as the Government toyed with predicted grades, online teaching and U-turns. The classes of 2020 finally left sixth form with A-level grades matching their Centre Assessed Grades (CAGs), which were their teachers predictions based on test results and effort levels. This seemingly logical solution to an unprecedented problem, however, failed thousands of students across the nation.
These 18 year olds had faced new SATs at age 11, a new numerical system alongside inflated content at GCSE’s followed by two years of hard work in sixth form to be told they cannot sit the exams they had built up to their whole lives.
As if this wasn’t hard enough, students from particular schools felt at a disadvantage to peers nationwide when it came to teacher predictions. A 19 year old student, Antonia Barna, studying at an Simon Langton Boys Grammar School in a mixed sixth form had firmed her decision to go to the London School of Economics, but after her teachers denied her the grades she felt she deserved, taking a year out to attain the grades she knows she’s capable of was her only solution. She claims that “attending a mixed sixth form at an all boys school, gender bias was quite prominent. “To give an example, in my philosophy class there were five girls and twenty-one boys, out of the five girls, three are resitting, but not a single boy is.” She claims, “some schools were much more strict than others'' and similarly “different departments took different approaches.”
Was the CAG system then too subjective, leaving too much room for flexibility, personal bias and inequality?
This particular pupil is not the only one who thinks so either. Out of a poll of just under 100 pupils who were given CAGs, 62% said they didn’t think their grades were a fair or accurate prediction. That’s 62% of people who worked for two years straight to be denied access to universities, opportunities and the actual grade they deserved. This fallacious system owes no second chances either, the pupil who had received her offer from LSE, a university with an offer rate of roughly 17% now faces worries over her chances of receiving a second offer from the highly competitive university. As she “spoke to both [universities] and they said [her] application will be seen as ‘weaker’ but still considered; at this point we can only hope for the best.”
Students were let down up and down the country this academic year due to COVID-19 and the Government's poor handling of the CAG system. Things are looking more hopeful for students wishing to sit exams next summer, as in early October, Gavin Williamson revealed both GCSE and A-level exams will go ahead with a three week delay to allow for extra teaching time. But will everyone sitting those exams have equal opportunities to exceed?
The education system is an institution whereby the wealthiest get the most out of it and the most say over it. But during COVID-19 we have seen examples of injustice exceed the norm. Whilst in normal times working class pupils or students living in deprived areas may struggle to keep up with their peers due to either cultural or material deprivation, this new found era of online learning has only heightened pre-existing inequality. Students from a working class background are the same students whose parents are more likely than their middle class peers to be key workers, not only then are deprived pupils more likely to lack resources for virtual learning but also will struggle to access help from parents.
So how has COVID-19 truly impacted the class divide in education?
When schools were closed the biggest problem appeared to be material deprivation. Children without laptops, wifi or a room of their own to work, are obviously going to struggle to bring their classroom into their home. Whilst schools with more affluent pupils can focus on upholding their educational standard, schools in impoverished areas focus on making sure low-income families have enough food, children are cared for when their parents are forced to go to work and providing them with access to a screen connected to wifi. We know that before the impact of the pandemic that middle class pupils often overachieved in comparison to their working class peers, as in 2015 60% of pupils not eligible for free school meals got 5 GCSEs at A*-C, compared with only 33% who were eligible. Only time will tell the true impact of Coronavirus on these pre-existing inequalities, but the Government seemed to have already failed the working class and their education.
The Government introduced the laptop scheme in order for low-income families to access online learning. 540,000 children in the UK were eligible for this scheme, a seemingly low number when considering that Patrick Butler, a social policy editor, “estimates that as many as 900,000 more children have sought free school meals, on top of the 1.4 million who were already claiming, as the COVID-19 crisis plays havoc with family incomes.” Yet the Government provided just 200,000 devices and 50,000 routers, meaning only 37% of children who needed a laptop were actually provided with one. Education is meant to be a place of opportunity, but it seems it's ridden with class inequalities which amongst the pandemic have only grown. COVID-19 is forging divides between families, friends and our favourite pastimes, but it seems one of the greatest divides is between the rich and the poor.
“From what I’ve seen, social distancing is simply not possible in a school environment, unless of course that school has access to outstanding facilities with plenty of space. Whilst standing in slender corridors, awaiting our teacher to show up after walking a half marathon to get to the Y12 group bubble, I see the worried faces of the A2 students juggling 3 textbooks (and a backpack overflowing with exam questions). I truly wish we saw more support for the emotions, feelings and mental health of those beneath the mask.” Ben, 17
The Government reopened schools this September on the basis that pupils could socially distance and education must proceed. Whilst we have touched on the issues faced by pupils and marginalised groups, one group the education system is wholly reliant on are too often overlooked; teachers. One Assistant Principal of a secondary school felt that the Government had completely let down the schooling system, particularly staff. As not only did they fail “to defend the profession from attacks in the media saying State schools weren’t working during lockdown when they were'' but “this led to a perception that teachers were ‘off’ when online lessons were taking place.” He mentions the press again as he claims “coverage focuses on school age children not being ill, but never mentions teachers'' as he is “yet to hear the word teacher in any press coverage.” With all this talk about the efficiency of the education system and online learning, one group is clearly not having their voice heard.
He goes on to highlight the many flaws he’s witnessed in schools and pins it on a lack of direct government action. “They seem terrified of making decisions for fear of losing politically,” he explains in relation to the lack of funding for IT and insufficient guidance/ coordination of schools' response. Though his experience was that “most pupils had access to technology but this was a difficulty for some families”. Some of his students struggled to access the laptop scheme, but others did benefit from the scheme. Even if they did not have access to a computer, the vast majority of pupils could access lessons on their phone, but lesson content would have been difficult to see on a small screen. The Assistant Principal goes on to finish with one final statement “New Zealand has 25 deaths total. Strong central government action can save lives.”
So what has the new academic year brought for those in Further Education? Small classrooms that narrowly fit fifteen desks & thirty chairs trying to accommodate the new intake of Y12 students, whilst supporting Y13s to excel in their A-levels. A challenging task for teachers and students alike, who are attempting to cope with what would be a stressful experience in the best of external circumstances.
“In a time where we’re legally required to socially distance, the number of people applying to sixth form has been the highest my school has ever seen. Some of today’s would-be year 13 students have been asked to repeat year 12, and mostly due to no fault of their own! Who could have predicted a global pandemic leaving students learning from home at a moment’s notice.” Ben, 17
This is a challenging time for all, although this is particularly difficult for the university, college, and school students whose fate lies in the hands of politicians who are balancing economic, health and social priorities. Whether A-Level students have a fair university place, whether 11 young people are able to find employment, or whether we lose more friends and family. It’s all in the hands of our Government.
Written by Annabelle Black (university student) and Ben Maher (sixth form student)