How can we support our disadvantaged students during the coronavirus shut down?
The last week has been a challenging one. Doubtless, for many leaders the most challenging in their careers. I am immensely fortunate to work for a wonderful, compassionate headteacher and with a highly effective team. We have established our 'virtual school', trialling this with different year groups on different days this week as we enacted a phased closure heading into Friday. Now, as we look ahead to perhaps months of virtual schooling we're faced with unknown challenges and complications. One of these is how to ensure that disadvantaged students do not suffer more than their better-off peers. One of my responsibilities at my Academy is looking after the interests of these children, and I wanted to share what we're doing so far and what we are considering for the future. Why are disadvantaged students more likely to suffer disproportionately during this time? When we talk about disadvantaged students in schools we generally (but not exclusively) mean children in receipt of pupil premium (PP) funding. This means children eligible for free school meals within the last 6 years, or those who are in local authority care or 'looked after children' (LAC). These are a diverse bunch, but on a cohort level there are a few barriers likely to contribute to their educational disadvantage during the school shutdown: 1. Lack of access to the internet (e.g. they may have no internet at all, or only limited mobile data) 2. Lack of access to appropriate technology (e.g. they may have a phone, but no computer) 3. Lack of physical learning resources (e.g. pens, paper) 4. Lack of appropriate workspace at home 5. Insecure home life (e.g. more likely – but of course this varies enormously - to have parents and families who are struggling themselves to manage this new normal) 6. Limited academic/self-regulatory support available from family (e.g. parents working or otherwise unable to support). 7. Lack of access to supporting resources necessary for health and happiness(which has to be the foundation for effective work) 8. Lack of access to appropriate leisure activities necessary to maintain wellbeing during this difficult time Whatever form home learning takes (I’ll hopefully post soon about what we’re doing initially for our virtual school), it is in most schools reliant on internet access and student self-regulation/buy-in. The above barriers therefore have the potential to undermine the ability of disadvantaged kids to access whatever virtual school curriculum is being put in place. Additionally, the truth is that whatever schools put in place is unlikely to mitigate many of these barriers. What have we done so far in our school?
With limited notice, we've begun by looking at immediate problems: access to physical learning resources and access to computers for students with no other technology at home. 1. Home learning resource packs. We've put together a home learning pack for every PP child, with pens, rubbers, additional spare exercise books, and a range of art supplies (brushes, colouring pencils and drawing pencils, pastels, an art sketch book, watercolours). The idea here was to provide an immediate kit for students to facilitate students in A) getting on with work and B) accessing a leisure activity (art) which can suit their interests and skill levels. Students and parents were absolutely thrilled with these, and the additional benefit was definitely a clear message of 'we care about you and are going to do everything we can to support you'.
2. Laptop loans. An obvious one; every available laptop we had in school not assigned to a teacher (e.g. from our trolley that goes from classroom to classroom, and spare laptops for staff) has been reformatted for student use and are being loaned out. Even in lieu of internet access, this gives students without a home computer a resource that they can use to support their work. 3. Sanitary products. For our girls, we've discretely supplied them with a month's worth of sanitary products. Simple, but important. What happens next?
On Monday, our leadership team are sitting down (evenly spaced around a large table, of course...) to decide on further provision. Initially, I've looked at our Pupil Premium grant spending plan for the year and audited for allocated funding that will no longer be spent - trip subsidies, music lesson, prize funds and the like. This will form our initial 'pot' of cash from which we can fund additional support and interventions. However, it's important to support the children as individuals with individual needs. As much as anything, we need to make our resources and staff time last, which means efficiency of our support is key. We'll be contacting our PP families over the next week and finding out what they need the most to facilitate successful home learning. For some, that might mean buying a desk. For others, a wireless dongle for internet access. Others may be desperate for an alarm clock or other tools to help establish routine. For others, it may emerge that they don't know how to spend their leisure time in ways that keep them stimulated and in good spirits - perhaps they need an exercise mat or even a Disney+ subscription (might be a bit counterintuitive that one)! There will be all kinds of strange things we've never considered funding before that will emerge as worthwhile over the coming months. One of our biggest considerations is whether for some, the best thing we can do is spend a massive wedge of their allocated funding buying them a laptop when our limited school supply dwindles (for many, there is one family computer which is now being commandeered by older siblings or parents working from home), or paying for a broadband connection for those reliant on a small amount of monthly data on their phones. And of course, ongoing support for some may mean monthly book drops from our school library or similar. Ultimately, we're only in the first few days of what could be months, and it's likely that virtual schooling arrangements will shift and change constantly as things change in society. I'm really interested in what other schools are doing, and hopefully now that I've shared the beginnings of my plan you might be willing to share yours? To bounce ideas around, please reply on Twitter or say hello at firstname.lastname@example.org
Best wishes to everyone for the work ahead!