Written evidence submitted by Digital Learning Lab/NUSTEM, Northumbria University
The Impact of Coronavirus on Primary Schools in North East England.
Challenges and Solutions.
Digital Learning Lab/NUSTEM, Northumbria University, UK.
Authors: S Middleton, I Emembolu, R Strachan, C Davenport, S Keogh, A Pickard, J Sanderson, J Bradnum, E Anderson.
This report draws on the research of the Digital Learning Lab (www.nudll.com) and NUSTEM (www.nustem.uk) and NUSTEM’s practice with primary school education, particularly in areas of lower socio-economic status. NUSTEM currently works in partnership with 30 schools across North East England.
Closure of Schools
The COVID-19 outbreak led to a nationwide lockdown in an effort to contain the virus. Measures such as social distancing, home quarantine where possible and school closures have been taken to ensure that people are limiting their interaction with others and slow the spread of the virus ("Coronavirus (COVID-19): Education and childcare", 2020). Schools and their teachers face challenges to provide education and support to their children and families due to the limited availability and accessibility of resources and the motivation/engagement with students and parents. They also face challenges in their attempts to provide work which takes into account the context and situation of the families involved. Working to guidelines which are generalised and adapting to the changing situation puts added pressures on school Senior Leadership Teams (SLT) and their staff to continually modify and adapt their plans to meet educational needs.
Online Home Based Education
Our experience shows many schools are providing learning strategies through online platforms and online learning programs. At the start of lockdown, many schools provided learning packs for the children to take home and uploaded daily lesson plans that were as close to a normal teaching day as possible. Following discussions with parents, schools soon realised that a lack of access to equipment/Internet and the sharing of digital devices within a household made this difficult. Some families were sharing one device between them and felt pressurised to complete all the work. This rigid framework also caused difficulties for parents who had multiple responsibilities, such as home working and care of more than one child, therefore limiting their ability and time to work 1:1 with a child. As a result, schools have adapted to the situation and moved to themed tasks and activities which promote cross-curricular education and support family learning.
Delivering online home based education that is as close to school-based learning is c0omplex. Most schools aim to provide subject plans, individual instructions and suitable resources that will help consolidate learning. Schools have subscribed to and are using online platforms e.g. Purple Mash, Class DoJo and Education City and reading apps like Oxford Owl which offer an online library for reading skills to support children reading at home. Children are usually expected to read one book per week and answer questions in a reading journal to show their understanding. Often parents have not understood the importance of repetition and recall to consolidate learning and have allowed their children to read all the books in a level once, rather than multiple times, as they are keen to move them to a higher level even when they are not ready to do so. Teachers have spent time emphasising the importance of repetition and recall and ensuring parents and children re-read books to answer the questions on them.
There are also difficulties with the continuity of teaching strategies. For example, in Mathematics, where there are many different learning methods, parents have expressed their anxiety about using the learning strategies that are curriculum-approved or in line with those taught in schools. Parents feel they have little understanding of these and many areas of the curriculum did not exist or were taught differently when they were at school. Phonics and grammar exercises in English is a further example which many parents felt unfamiliar with and thus struggled to give explanations/instructions to their children. Teachers have tried to support parents and their children by providing details of the objectives and learning strategies and providing access to free planning/resources from sites such as Twinkl and PhonicsPlay and again drawing on educational software such as Purple Mash and Class DoJo which provide lesson plans, teaching videos, games and resources by year group, subject and ability, making it easier for children to access curriculum approved resources and be independent in their learning.
Time and accessibility to digital devices and learning resources were a major barrier to home based education. Only one in 10 teachers interviewed was using video conferencing with their students to deliver lessons because of children being able to log onto the shared platforms at the same time and receive equality of learning opportunities. Teachers are therefore providing whole class resources and activity suggestions. Online platforms provide planning timetables for activities in Mathematics, English and other topic areas. Some schools already used online platforms making them familiar and easier for the children to use. Some schools have decided to expand their subscriptions to other platforms. This has caused some difficulties for parents and children in understanding how to use the programs to their full potential, with schools uploading instructional videos on to their websites and providing links to other informational videos e.g. YouTube to help with this.
Alternative Learning Approaches
To address lack of accessibility to digital devices and concerns about learning tasks being too time consuming, activity suggestions have replaced rigid lesson plans and daily criteria. Teachers have discussed efforts to promote creativity whilst also recognising these plans need to be affordable and accessible. For example, it may be difficult for certain families to access/buy ingredients for baking/cooking. Schools do not want to add more pressure to parents and disappoint children. Feedback from families suggest some parents and children feel like they are not succeeding if the cannot complete the set tasks. There is also peer pressure for those children who do not upload photos of their practical work. Therefore, schools are trying to make learning suggestions centre on everyday life, such as observations and discussions on their surroundings whilst out on walks. NUSTEM have also constructed a 10 point plan they are using in their STEM engagement activities with schools and families.
Schools have moved to focus on affordable, engaging, family-orientated tasks to relieve parents from the pressures of dedicating time slots to a variety of subjects with individual tasks. Schools are often following whole-school themed activities where work is centred on a particular cross-curricular theme. Tasks focus on this theme but are ability-appropriate. Schools are aiming to set themed tasks where different age groups can be involved in tasks which also promotes peer mentoring. Teachers have made suggestions for children working together in games and competitions in activities, such as seeing who can do the most jumping jacks in a minute, who can match all of these pairs of socks and what knowledge they have of the flowers they passed during their daily exercise.
Lower Socio-economic and Second Language Impacts
This evidence focuses on families and schools in lower socio-economic catchment areas. Recognising this, schools have contacted all their families to find out which have access to technology and which require devices and Internet access. Our evidence suggests most families have some access to digital devices and are able to connect to the internet. Schools have supplied school iPads and laptops to families who needed them and those schools with high numbers of Pupil Premium (PP) children have had some mechanism to apply for devices from the government.
Studies indicate children from low income families tend to have less educated parents, often with problems such as illiteracy and language barriers. Parents are therefore unable to support children fully in their learning. Teachers in these catchment areas often stated that their schools had a higher percentage of PP and SEN children, and expressed specific concerns over speech and language. Furthermore, where English is a second language, one or both parents may not speak English adding to the difficulties. Schools have tried to maintain regular contact with these families to come up with support strategies that might sustain their children’s education.
Engagement, Assessment and Feedback
This has been a particularly difficult time to accurately monitor/evaluate children’s progress. Some programs e.g. Purple Mash, store data on completed tasks and allow teachers to see what work the children are doing but there is no proof that it is the children themselves that are completing the tasks. Some schools ask children to upload their work via email, such as taking photographs of written work and practical activities and teachers can observe and respond to these. Schools cannot place an emphasis on monitoring and assessment because it is dependent on time, engagement and willingness. Some SLT have decided that it would be better to reduce monitoring and to try to improve communication with parents to discuss work and wellbeing, as well as offering advice.
Correspondence depends on the parents and schools have noticed that most children and parents are motivated and engaging well. Those who are not engaging are those parents who are not usually as involved with the schools and their children’s education. These families have been contacted more frequently via phone calls, texts and emails. It is difficult for parents who are working full time or have larger families to find the time to both do the work and then report back to staff.
It is also difficult for Early Years (EYs) children because they aren't independent yet and so need constant attention, observation and instruction. Parents have to sit with these children and this isn't always effective with children at this young age. Their attention span is not long enough to just sit at a table for long stretches and work and so learning through play activities have been suggested by teachers.
Staff have found that children and parents are reacting better to work that they can include in their day, such as a family nature walk or game with tasks appropriate to different age groups.
Communication with Children, Parents and Colleagues
Staff, pupils and parents would usually communicate through social interaction in the school environment but while this is no longer allowed, schools are finding alternative methods. Most schools are now communicating with children, parents and colleagues via online platforms. Many schools have improved their use of social media. Some schools noted that they had Facebook and Twitter accounts in place prior to lockdown which weren’t used effectively. Schools are now using these to post content and challenges for parents and children. The main purpose is for communication and to promote mental wellbeing through involvement and interaction between staff, parents, students and their peers.
Teachers want to be able speak to the children in person, and vice versa but this is difficult in practice. Teachers are doing the best they can digitally; through online messages, school texts, class stories posted on websites and on certain subscriber platforms. Schools cannot force families to communicate with them and teachers have noticed that engagement from certain classes has been very poor. Those that don’t get in touch are being monitored by SLT and are receiving supportive phone calls from them on a regular basis to make sure they are managing.
Staff would usually participate in team meetings and Continuous Professional Development sessions on a weekly basis and the need for communication between staff is even more vital as policies and guidelines are changing at such a rapid pace. The study shows that schools are using Microsoft Teams and Zoom to hold video conference calls to discuss current work, new guidelines and plans to reopen. Prior to COVID-19 most schools had never participated in a video conference call. To maintain relationships and morale, most schools communicate professionally via email, telephone or video conferencing. Each school uses social media, texts and WhatsApp to communicate informally with one another. One teacher spoke about how her school had a WhatsApp group between colleagues to discuss school issues and another for them to discuss issues outside of school to try and establish boundaries between work and home life, which has been difficult with those lines becoming crossed as people work from home.
The government has released generalised and standardised policies and guidelines relating to the impact of COVID-19 in schools. These guidelines are quite generic in an attempt to suit schools in a variety of contexts. This means they are sometimes difficult to interpret and adapt to meet the needs of an individual school. There is an understanding that “we are all in the same storm but are not in the same boat”; every person and family are different. Some parents are juggling working with looking after and schooling their children, which is stressful and exhausting. It is also problematic because parents are expected to teach their children without any training or proper guidance. Some key workers have to work and leave their children in school and some have concerns this is putting their children in a more dangerous situation. Staff who are working in school are trying their best to promote positivity in making the visual environment happy, through bright colours, child friendly images, positive attitudes and by making learning as fun as possible. They are trying to stimulate mental wellbeing through games and activities outside and are conveying these positive approaches to parents to help reassure them. For some children, coming into school is their only arena which promotes love and stability. Schools are trying to keep things as normal as possible with key workers’ children but having to emphasize the importance of cleanliness and social distancing. For children, it is sometimes frustrating and difficult to understand these new social boundaries and it takes a lot of concentration and will power to follow these rules, especially for younger children. Playing games, having competitions and having Personal, Social and Health Education (PSHE) and mindfulness sessions is helping children to understand these rules, the importance of following them and assuring them that this will not always be the case.
Teachers are giving those children at home struggling with mental wellbeing extra phone calls and praise to promote positivity. School is a stable environment and it has been recognised that children are finding it difficult without the safety of school and being able to interact socially. Schools are therefore trying to maintain some semblance of routine. Social support workers and mental health agencies have been assigned to those families that need it most.
There are suggestions from some teachers that the Government also needs to understand that there is not a ‘one size fits all’ solution. It needs to be adapted to suit different contexts and areas. When the Government publicises ideas and guidelines they aren’t taking different contexts into account. The North East as a whole is classed as a deprived area (Miller & Dickinson, 2019; European Commission, 2020) and children in this area tend not to be ready for certain things that children in more affluent areas would be. For example, teachers feel that children in younger year groups are used to learning through play and the advisement that children will remain at desks for a full day is too rigid plus it will be extremely difficult to keep young children 2m away from each other all of the time.
These children are at an age where they are learning social skills through social expressions, sharing and interaction. Young children will not do well without physical signs of affection, resulting in further concern that bringing them back at a time when it isn't safe may be more detrimental to their mental health. Schools are hoping to provide positive interaction with children in their return to school, e.g. using bright and animated instructions and having footprints and path markers and tape produced in rainbow colours/with different characters on them.
Reopening of schools
Many schools in North East England will not open on 1st June in accordance with the government target, with many looking at 8th June at the earliest. Schools are preparing for reopening with a phased return and most are currently updating policies and making amendments to support this, with deep cleaning, removal of restricted resources and marking of social distancing areas with supplementary instructions. This is challenging because most schools have limitations on space. Children will work in bubbles with individual work packs.
One teacher expressed the difficulties her school would face in reopening the school: “There are only nine classrooms and usually forty children per year group. The school wouldn’t have space for everyone”. She explained they were initially going to open Reception and have ‘bubbles’ of eight children which would occupy six classrooms. There would be one teacher and one teaching assistant assigned to each group. To limit social interactions there would be no crossover between staff but there will be two members to support each other. In keeping with the scheme of work sent out, Maths and Phonics will continue to take place in the morning. New activities would be assigned for afternoon sessions. The children in school and working from home must receive the same working resources in an attempt to equalise learning.
Teachers explained that some parents have expressed their frustration with the lengthy lockdown period but also a fear that the widespread reopening of schools could see children being sent back home. Most schools have contacted parents by telephone or have sent out surveys to assess parents’ opinions on school work and whether they are planning to send their children back to school. The majority of schools indicate that very few parents are planning to do this during the initial reopening.
In conclusion, the key barriers are: limited availability of IT equipment, limited time to spend with each child, parents not equipped to educate – both learning and language barriers, disproportionately affecting those from lower socioeconomic backgrounds. Solutions include: clear guidance, family based activities, not all requiring technology, follow up for those not engaging, strong focus on mental wellbeing and ensuring activities are accessible to all including those on low income.
Date: 31st May 2020.