Our Research and Policy Manager Dr Rebecca Montacute looks at how the school closures will affect our most disadvantaged students, including likely impacts on the attainment gap.

The current global health crisis has meant we’ve all had to make changes to how we live our livesBut yesterday’s announcement that schools would close to all but the children of key workers and the most vulnerable was truly unprecedentedWhile it’s unclear how long these measures will last, the decision will not have been taken lightlyHowever, it is one that will have a considerable impact on the lives of millions of children and their parents, with the biggest impacts likely to fall on those from the poorest backgrounds.  

The most immediate and pressing concern is ensuring that the hundreds of thousands of students who rely on free school meals continue to be fed. For some, this is their only guaranteed meal of the day. In the short term at least, it’s likely that schools and local charities will need to do whatever they can to bridge the gap immediately, and indeed there are already reports of some schools and academy trusts taking matters into their own hands, using their existing funds to buy supermarket vouchers for eligible children’s families.  

The government is absolutely right to reimburse schools that have already spent money on vouchers, and to roll out a national voucher scheme so that, immediatelyall schools will have the ability to issue such vouchers. We also welcome the government’s commitment to cover the full additional cost of this scheme, giving schools with the highest numbers of disadvantaged students the confidence that they will not lose out if they need to dig into other funds to feed children now.  

In the long-term, the closure is likely to have a considerable impact on the attainment gap, with disadvantaged students already twice as likely to leave formal education without GCSEs in English and maths than their better-off classmates. We know that time away from school widens this gap, with summer holidays seeing children from the poorest backgrounds falling further behind their classmates. Children from poorer backgrounds have limited access to additional activities and support at home, and will often also be facing other challenges which impact on attainment, such as poverty and food insecurity – both of which are likely to be exacerbated in the current crisis.  

Government and those working across the education sector will need to do we can to provide resources and support to these children, and we also welcome the work they have announced with the BBC to provide additional educational resources 

One of the first challenges will be to make sure all children have the equipment they need to access these and other resources. Sutton Trust polling has found that 34% of parents with children aged 5-16 say that their child does not have their own computer, laptop or tablet at home. It is also important all children have safe place in which to learn.  

If they are able to, parents will understandably look to reduce the impact of school closures on their children, and it seems likely that we will see an increase in the use of private tuition in the coming months, with these services largely moving to remote deliveryThe Trust has frequently highlighted gaps in access to private tuition, with children from poorer families much less likely to be supported in this wayOne to one tuition is known to have a positive impact on the attainment of pupils, so any gaps in access to it have the potential to further widen the attainment gap while schools are closed. Supporting organisations like the Tutor Trust, who help disadvantaged students to access private tuition, to adapt to these new circumstances will be more important than ever. It is also vital that private tutoring companies, many of whom do this already, continue to provide tutoring pro bono for those who need it most. 

There will also be challenges for organisations like the Sutton Trust itself, who provide additional support to poorer children outside the classroom, support which will be even more important when schools themselves are closed. There is a danger that an entire cohort of students could miss out on outreach activities, which could have a substantial impact on university access. For our own programmes, we are working alongside our partners to do all we can to ensure face to face provision is replaced by content delivered online or alternative provision later in the year. Wwill be giving more detail on this in the coming weeks.  

Throughout this unprecedented crisis, there will need to be a collective effort across the education sector and also wider society. The efforts of teachers and other school staff has already been inspiration in such a difficult time. There will however be more difficult decisions to come, with the government already announcing that this year’s exams will be cancelled. How exactly to determine student’s grades in these circumstances, in a way that is fair to everyone, will be a substantial challenge.  

It is also as yet unclear how this will impact on the university application processRelying on predicted grades for university admissions, for example, is fraught with problems due to their unreliability. The majority of grades are inaccurate, and our own research has revealed that high attaining low income young people are particularly likely to have grades that are under-predicted relative to their actual performance in A level exams.  Any such move to use predicted grades would need to be carefully managed so as to minimise negative impacts on pupils from less well-off backgrounds and less well-resourced schools.   

Together, we need to do all we can to make sure these difficult decisions are made in a way that helps young people from poorer backgrounds, rather than disadvantaging them further. 

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