Written evidence submitted by the National Literacy Trust
Response to Education Select Committee inquiry on the impact of COVID-19 on education and children’s services
The National Literacy Trust is an independent charity dedicated to raising literacy levels in the UK. Our mission is to give disadvantaged children and young people the literacy skills to succeed in life
The capacity of children’s services to support vulnerable children and young people.
The Children’s Commissioner estimates that 2.3m children are living with risk because of a vulnerable family background. The situation with coronavirus may exacerbate existing problems at home: there has already been a significant increase in calls to Childline from children who have experienced physical, sexual, or emotional abuse, or neglect. For children who are living in difficult or dangerous situation, the closures of schools may represent the loss of a safe and stable environment.
We are concerned that children’s services will struggle to support these children, particularly when many staff are unable to work due to sickness or having to self-isolate, and when making contact with children and families in person may no longer be possible. A survey by BASW also suggests that some families are refusing social worker visits due to concerns over social distancing and a lack of PPE for social workers. We know that local authorities are changing the way they deliver support to vulnerable children and young people. However, as many nurseries and schools have been closed over the last couple of months, some children at risk may not have been identified and referred to support services. 57% of Barnardo’s practitioners are concerned about an increase in family conflict and stress, yet nearly half have reported a decrease in referrals due to services having less contact with families.
The effect of provider closure on the early years’ sector, including reference to:
We are concerned about the impact of provider closure on babies and very young children, during what is a critical stage in their development. What happens during the first few years of life impacts on lifelong physical and mental health, social, educational and economic outcomes. Many families are facing stresses around financial difficulties, job insecurity and isolation, and it is vital they get the support they need, given that parents’ wellbeing has a direct impact on their children. An ONS wellbeing survey found that almost half of people reported high anxiety at the end of March, and over 1.5m children are already living in families where one parent has a severe mental health problem. However, with the closure of many services, there is a risk that families with the highest need will be struggling in isolation.
Early years settings can enhance all-round development in children. Disadvantaged children in particular benefit significantly from good quality pre-school experiences, which can lead to better intellectual and social behavioural development. Early years settings can also help children make the transition to Year 1. Missing a significant part of the final reception term may mean children will struggle to develop the key skills that support this transition, like being able to complete tasks independently and maintaining attention, so it is crucial that children receive the support they need.
With many settings closed, the home learning environment has become increasingly important. The quality of the home learning environment is a key predictor of a child’s early language skills and their future success, including school attainment and job prospects. However many parents struggle with regular, sustained and positive interactions, because of a lack of confidence, time or capacity, or because they underestimate their impact on young children. This is a particular issue for parents in low-income households: disadvantaged children are less likely to be read to, and the most disadvantaged children start school 19 months behind their more well-off peers in language and communication development. We are concerned that the current situation will only widen the early years’ attainment gap, when many families are facing financial pressures and are unable to prioritise children’s learning. Research has shown that children in extreme family environments such as chaotic households and those experiencing high levels of risk receive poorer quality home learning. Practitioners and early settings can play an important role in supporting parents to do more home learning activities, but many of these settings are closed. Our Early Words Together programme trains school and nursery staff to help parents support their child’s development: 78% of parents say they are more confident singing songs and sharing stories with their child after the programme. However, the programme has been suspended in many areas.
Despite the challenges faced by many families, now that parents are spending more time at home during the lockdown, there are increased opportunities for them to support children’s early literacy and language development. In fact, preliminary data from a survey we have been carrying out with parents about the home learning environment during lockdown suggests that three quarters of parents are spending more time talking with their child than before lockdown. Since schools have been closed, we have worked with our partners in deprived communities across the UK to deliver books and resources to the homes of the children who are most in need, as well as developing interactive digital resources to engage children through our Family Zone website, which has reached a quarter of a million unique users. Our Hungry Little Minds project, funded by the Department for Education, has been supporting the most disadvantaged parents in 6 areas of the UK to chat, play and read with their children, through online learning resources, and books and activity packs distributed through food banks and women’s refuges. Physical learning resources are important as we know that many families are unable to use digital resources due to a lack of a broadband internet connection. This affects low-income households in particular: Ofcom’s Access and Inclusion report suggests that people who are financially vulnerable are less likely to have fixed broadband, and more likely than average to live in a mobile-only household (28% vs 21%), meaning that many parents are trying to access resources on a mobile phone.
The effect of cancelling formal exams, including the fairness of qualifications awarded and pupils’ progression to the next stage of education or employment
Exams validate pupil’s learning and achievement, and act as a motivator for study. We welcome the Government’s decision not to decide final grades based on predicted grades alone, as research suggests that high attaining disadvantaged students are more likely to have their grades under-predicted than their richer counterparts. However, almost half of students think that coronavirus will damage their chances of getting into their first-choice university, with working class students more likely to be worried (51% compared to 43% from middle class homes.
Support for pupils and families during closures, including:
We know that many schools have provided a wealth of guidance and information to parents. Several charities, educational organisations, commercial providers and broadcasters have also launched digital learning resources and websites, including the National Literacy Trust, and while these resources are designed to be helpful to parents, there is a risk that parents may become overwhelmed by the amount of information. Given that 16% of adults of adults in England, or 7.1m people, have very poor literacy skills, it is important that schools and other providers of educational resources use written communication that can be easily understood, so it is as accessible as possible. Research shows we are more likely to register information that is simple because our attention is more likely to be drawn to things we can understand: as well as using plain English, best practice for resources might include making sure the key message is presented early on, being specific about suggested actions, and removing all information that is not absolutely necessary for performing those actions. Using positive messaging is also important: that might include focusing on the positive outcomes of learning at home rather than the impact that not engaging in those activities will have, or celebrating home learning successes so far.
It is also important to bear in mind that not all parents will have the confidence to use materials provided by schools and other providers. Even those who have good literacy skills may lack confidence in using learning materials: a survey conducted by Sutton Trust and Public First found that only 42% of parents feel confident home-schooling their children. It is also worth remembering that some pupils will require specific individualised support to overcome barriers to learning, and that generic resources will not necessarily be enough to engage them. Home schooling may be particularly difficult for parents of children with complex needs, who are no longer receiving care and educational assistance during the coronavirus pandemic. Home schooling may also be difficult for parents who do not speak English as a first language.
Traumatic events can trigger problems for children and young people who are already vulnerable. The COVID-19 pandemic is a significant mental health risk for children and young people. A Young Minds survey found that 83% of children with a history of mental health needs said that the pandemic has made their mental health a bit or much worse, with many feeling anxious about health, school closures, loss of routine, and loss of social connection. Children from disadvantaged backgrounds are particularly affected: we know that mental health disorders are more common among children living in lower income households. Research from the National Youth Agency suggests that there over one million young people with known needs that have been amplified by the pandemic and two million young people with emerging needs triggered or caused by COVID-19. According to the Education Policy Institute there is a real risk that pupils will return to school with fresh behavioural challenges due to family circumstances or bereavement, and this is likely to affect disadvantaged children in particular.
With the closure of schools and many other settings, and as a result of Government advice around social distancing, we know that children haven’t been able to spend time with friends. Research from the Mental Health Foundation shows that providing children with supportive environments early may be key for ensuring good mental health: without support from friends, many children may be feeling isolated. For example, children are more likely to access informal support sources such as from their friends than formal support services. In addition, other factors that influence wellbeing, such as taking part in local activities, are no longer possible while the country is in lockdown.
The effect on apprenticeships and other workplace-based education courses
The financial implications of closures for providers (including higher education and independent training providers), pupils and families
The National Literacy Trust provides evidence-based professional development training and workshops to primary and secondary teachers and leaders to help them develop their provision, raise standards in their schools, and improve literacy outcomes. We are currently unable to deliver this training, as it is normally conducted face-to-face in schools, and this has had a significant financial impact.
The effect on disadvantaged groups, including the Department’s approach to free school meals and the long-term impact on the most vulnerable groups (such as pupils with special educational needs and disabilities and children in need)
We are extremely concerned that the COVID-19 pandemic will widen the attainment gap suffered by disadvantaged students, who are already twice as likely to leave formal education without GCSEs in English and maths compared to their better-off classmates. Research from the Sutton Trust shows that only 16% of pupils from working class backgrounds are taking part in live and recorded lessons online every day, compared with 30% of pupils from middle class homes. A new report from the IFS shows that higher-income parents are much more likely than the less well-off to report that their child’s school provides online classes and access to online videoconferencing with teachers, and that children from better-off families are spending 30% more time on home learning than those from poorer families.
Evidence already suggests that poorer students fall further behind during breaks from school, due to limited access to enrichment activities and food insecurity, and that the prolonged summer break may be one of the most fundamental contributors towards the attainment gap between richest and poorest children, accounting for almost two thirds of the gap by the time children reach the age of 14. Recent Sutton Trust research shows that that teachers in the most deprived schools are more than twice as likely as those in advantaged schools to say the work their students are submitting during the lockdown is of a much lower quality than normal (15% vs 6%). 73% of teachers anticipate a negative impact on pupil’s attainment and progression.
We are particularly concerned about the impact on children’s literacy. Poor literacy levels reflect and reinforce social and economic inequality. The areas in England with the lowest literacy are the most economically disadvantaged. Tackling low literacy is a vital element of action against poverty and improving literacy boosts life chances, increasing employability and earning potential. However, the COVID-19 pandemic will result in the gap between the literacy of children from poorer backgrounds and their more affluent peers becoming even wider.
While many organisations, including the National Literacy Trust, are offering free online educational resources, we know that many of the most vulnerable children don’t have the technology they need to access these from home. A survey of more than 6,000 teachers by Teacher Tapp found that only 2% of teachers working in the poorest communities believe all their pupils can access the internet at home, while Sutton Trust research found that over a third of parents with children aged 5-16 reported that their child does not have access to their own computer, laptop or tablet. While we welcome the Government’s commitment to providing free laptops or tablets and 4G routers to disadvantaged pupils, we are concerned that many disadvantaged pupils, including those who do not receive support from a social worker, will not benefit from this scheme.
In addition, the parents of the most vulnerable children frequently lack the skills, confidence and motivation to support their learning outside of a school environment. A survey conducted by the Sutton Trust and Public First found that just 37% of parents in the C2DE social grade were confident teaching their children and explaining things when they are learning from home, compared with 47% of those in the ABC1 grade. Research also shows that disadvantaged families are likely to have less capacity to support their children’s home-schooling during this period: those with the lowest household income were six times less likely to be able to work from home and three times less likely to be able to self-isolate.
Research from the Child Poverty Action Group found that families with dependent children are likely to be negatively affected by the financial, emotional and physical implications of lockdown. Many families are concerned about their finances, particularly when the closure of schools has led to mounting utility bills and food bills: An ONS survey found that 39% of parents have had their household finances affected by COVID-19 compared to 22% of non-parents, while a survey from the Food Foundation found that 5 million people living in households with children have experienced food insecurity since lockdown started. Data from the Children’s Commissioner also shows that many children are living in overcrowded conditions, making it difficult to learn. It is likely that these challenges will indirectly impact on attainment. There are also long-term implications when many children’s charities are at risk of closing: the Childhood Trust estimate that 40% of child poverty charities in London will be forced to close within 6 months. This is worrying when we know that child poverty was already rising before coronavirus.
What contingency planning can be done to ensure the resilience of the sector in case of any future national emergency.
The COVID-19 pandemic has reinforced the vital role of technology in enabling people to access information and connect with others. For many children, it has been fundamental to their learning over the last few weeks. However, as stated above, we know that many of the most vulnerable children don’t have the technology they need to effectively learn from home. Ensuring that all children have digital access in times of need is really critical. This might involve the Government providing additional laptops or tablets to schools, which pupils can then borrow, or teachers ensuring that all pupils have a digital profile for the online learning platform used by their school.
In future, it will also be important to ensure that children, teachers and parents have the confidence to use online learning resources. This might involve schools providing guidance for parents, tailored to those who find online learning platforms or resources particularly difficult to use. While we know that schools have provided support and guidance to parents, teachers have had to create and provide this guidance under pressure and at short notice: over a longer period it may be helpful to speak to parents, find out what support they require, and provide tailored information and resources when there is less pressure to send this out quickly. Many teachers may also need further support to set up online learning resources: a poll by Teacher Tapp found that while 69% of private school teachers feel prepared to video lessons, this figure was only 40% in the state sector.
In relation to the early years’ sector, our local authority partners have reported that closures have placed tremendous pressure on practitioners, particularly those working in private, voluntary and independent (PVI) settings. In some cases, local authorities have asked us not to contact PVI settings to offer support as practitioners are extremely overwhelmed and anxious. We know that many PVI nurseries do not have the financial security to sustain themselves when children are not attending and paying fees. Many settings – some of which were already facing financial difficulties before the current crisis – are at risk of closure, which puts pressure on working families who rely on nurseries for childcare. It is vital that these settings are supported by Government so that they are protected in future, should a similar situation arise. Nurseries should also be provided with clear guidance on how to prevent and limit the spread of viruses in early years’ settings, when young children are unable to understand the concept of social distancing, as well as guidance on how to maintain relationships with families if face to face interaction is limited. It would also be helpful if local authorities were provided with guidance on how to manage the closure of early years’ settings, in order to prevent any negative impact on children’s wellbeing.