COVID- 19's Effect on Educational Inequalities in the UK

Education Secretary Gavin Williamson

On March 20th 2020, in an unprecedented move to stem the spread of coronavirus, schools closed in the UK. With thousands of students given short notice to say goodbye to those they have shared memorable years of their education with, the Government’s move sparked a period of immense uncertainty for Britain’s Youth. Not only did it highlight the very real danger that COVID 19 posed to our society, but it also plunged millions of students into an uncertain situation that they could not have envisaged. Almost instantaneously, plans to take exams, say goodbye to either primary school, secondary school, or even university had been destroyed, with both the anticipation of new experiences and the ability to close important chapters of our lives, removed. As the national death toll gradually increased, and the daily governmental press conferences clearly exhibited the devastating impact of coronavirus on our society, beneath the surface, the deep-rooted disparity of education and opportunity was growing significantly.

In the UK, funding for schools varies immensely, which has a corresponding impact on the extent that educational institutions can support their students during these difficult times. Whilst some of the best schools in the country offer a complete virtual educational experience, alongside extra co-curricular activities, other schools – usually with limited resources, struggle to offer anything even slightly related for their students, who have received little to no access to any teaching, or any educational support at all. As a result, some portions of society have received limited disruption to their education during this period, but for the majority, millions have undergone severe disruption, with some even left without access to the Internet. Worryingly, by September, when schools are supposed to re-open, almost six months will have passed since schools were last physically open.

Unfortunately, studies have shown that School closures have increased educational inequalities. It is clear that students from better-off families have spent longer working at home, aided by their ability to access more individualised resources, such as private tutoring or chats with teachers, whilst it is more likely that their home environment is better prepared for distance learning. However, alarmingly, these inequalities could continue to manifest themselves, even when schools do reopen, with fewer than half of parents confirming they would send their child back to school. Importantly, higher-income parents have reported to be more willing to send their child back to school, risking a situation where the children who struggle most with distance learning remain at home, while their more fortunate classmates are back in school – where it is easier to learn.

One could argue that the UK Government is to blame for these deep-rooted disparities, with their response to this educational crisis, arguably lacking in many areas. Their plans to reopen all primary schools in July had to be scrapped, and when comparing the UK to the rest of Europe, we are ‘an outlier’. However, when analysing the complex implications that COVID-19 has had on education, they cannot be underestimated, with social distancing impossible in some school environments, and the risk of school-centred outbreaks high. Especially for Year 10s and 12s, who are supposed to take major GCSEs and A-Levels next year, the confusion caused by the crisis has left us in a precarious situation, wondering when, if, or in what form our exams will take place. Head Teachers have openly called for ‘reduced content’ in exams, or for ‘open book’ exams, but for now, however, we have been left in the dark, uncertain of what our educational future holds. Similarly, for students whose examinations have been cancelled, the rigours of applying to University have again increased levels of anxiety, and whilst world-renowned institutions, such as Cambridge University, have announced that their teaching will be online until the summer of 2021, students have genuine concerns over their university experience, wondering whether it will live up to their expectations.

However, it would be wrong to assume that the implications of COVID-19 have all been negative. For many, a sense of family and community has prevailed, working together for a better outcome for all, by upholding social distancing guidelines for example. Moreover, it has been reassuring to see major national institutions, such as the BBC – the British Broadcasting Corporation – expand their online teaching resources, forming a lifeline for struggling students or parents, acknowledging the extreme hardships that the youth of today currently face. Whilst on the other hand, it has to be said that the tough rigours of homeschooling has strained families across the UK, with parents describing the situation as having ‘two jobs’ or even ‘hell’, compromising their ability to act as both an employee and parent. Despite widespread struggles, a resulting positive, is the increase in admiration for the teaching profession as a whole, with parents understanding the difficulty of our teacher’s invaluable work, which hopefully will lead to heightened recognition of key workers in the future.

Whatever is the outcome of the COVID-19 Pandemic, I hope that the educational disparities caused by this crisis, do not leave a generation divided, either by educational qualifications, or the subsequent opportunities that they offer. As society, the economy, and the educational framework continue to recover, the government’s plans to reduce the negative impact must be of the highest quality, moving forward as fast as possible, as to minimise further youth uncertainty. We should collectively look back on the events of this period as valuable learning experiences, incorporating the effective features of virtual learning for example, back into our ‘new normal’, one that strives to promote equality of education and opportunity, and come to terms with one of the most turbulent periods in our history.