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FEATURE FOCUS: BRIDGING THE COVID-19 LEARNING GAP


Society has to think creatively about how to help struggling young children catch-up


Then they put him forward for the TutorMate programme, in which a volunteer tutor encouraged his reading in regular online sessions. Week by week, his confidence grew. In a thrilling turnaround, by the end of the academic year Dylan was reaching expectations for his peer group. His teachers were delighted — as was Dylan himself. Even when their prospects seem bleak,


I


n our second feature this month looking at the creative ways our sector is coming


together to help struggling and economically disadvantaged pupils, we hear from Emma Bell, Executive Director of Innovations for Learning, the charity which runs the TutorMate programme, who explains why it is so important for us all to help disadvantaged learners catch up.


At the end of the last school year, Dylan (not his real name) was struggling. Aged six, he was at an inner London school where over 60% of children receive free school meals (the national average is 20%). He was barely meeting the age-related expectations as measured by his teachers. He was showing signs of dyslexia; the condition runs in his family, in which the socio-economic circumstances were also challenging. His confidence as a reader was at rock bottom. The teachers feared for Dylan’s prospects.


struggling readers can be pulled up, as Dylan’s experience testifies. Doing so transforms their futures: nothing changes the trajectory of a child’s life more powerfully than literacy. But it’s an unfortunate truth that, even in the best of times, too many KS1 children, especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds, simply don’t get the critical reading practice that they need to become confident readers and learners. The Covid-19 pandemic has gravely exacerbated this problem. We need a cross-society approach to fixing it.


Scale of the challenge Before lockdown, 36% of English schoolchildren from disadvantaged backgrounds left primary school not able to read to the expected standard. As many as 380,000 children don’t even own a book, severely limiting their ability to practise reading at home and stifling their chance to grasp broader educational opportunities. The whole of their lives, including their duration, will be shaped by that deprivation: evidence shows that children born into communities with the most serious literacy challenges have some of the lowest life expectancies in England. During childhood itself, the effects are wide-


ranging. The ability to read is of course fundamental to children’s ability to learn, but it is more than that. According to evidence amassed


28 www.education-today.co.uk


since 2005 from the National Literacy Trust’s annual reading surveys, if young people actually enjoy reading, as well as doing better in the classroom, they are happier with their lives. In more ‘normal’ times, schools face an uphill


challenge to improve children’s reading confidence and enjoyment. KS1 teachers rightly emphasise in-school reading, creative story-telling and encourage daily reading records, but stretched budgets limit the amount of 1:1 time staff can spend with each individual child. Schools look to parents and carers to provide as much reading support as they can. But in some families, particularly those in disadvantaged communities, adults have their own literacy challenges, are often unable to read well in English or just don’t have the time for daily reading as they struggle to work multiple jobs. Once lockdown started, teachers further lost


their ability to tailor help for struggling readers. Four in ten children have had no regular contact with their school since March 23rd. Many disadvantaged children were always going to find it hard to participate in home school, away from routines and the all-important peer group effect, let alone when that schooling had to be entirely online. Many don’t have access to quiet space, a reliable device or a robust internet connection. Parents with degrees and postgraduate qualifications say they feel more confident directing their children’s learning during this time than those without. By mid-May, evidence showed that children from higher-income families had had as many as 7 days extra learning time during lockdown because their families had the resources to access online schooling. For those children and young people who do not go back until September, this gap will double, according to the Institute for Fiscal Studies.


July/August 2020


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