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Teachers around the country are demonstrating their commitment to the pupils and communities they work with.

Alongside teaching assistants and other school staff, they are creating lessons from scratch, commuting to different schools, supporting pupils remotely, and putting their own health on the line to ensure that the children of key workers can stay in school.

These changes create upheaval for all pupils. The priority right now is ensuring that children are safe and that schools can function, as well as dealing with the immediate needs of vulnerable pupils who could miss out on vital support such as free school meals if they are not in school.

But beyond these immediate needs, school closures will affect many of our most disadvantaged pupils in another, less visible, way: ‘learning loss’.

Why ‘learning loss’ hits the most disadvantaged hardest

Even in normal circumstances, pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds have poorer outcomes and make less educational progress than their peers.

When schools are closed for long periods, for example during summer holidays, these differences are exacerbated: disadvantaged children suffer more from ‘summer learning loss’ – where learning gains made in school are lost over the holidays.

Why does ‘learning loss’ hit the most disadvantaged hardest? There are multiple reasons, from the availability of books and spaces to learn in the home, to access to the internet and resources such as laptops, to opportunities for museum visits and educational trips.

Summer learning loss has historically been more of a problem in countries such as the USA, where holidays are often much longer than the standard six-week break experienced by most pupils in the UK.

But if, as many expect, COVID-19 means that schools are not fully open again until September, then the evidence on summer learning loss suggests we can expect to see the progress of disadvantaged pupils suffer disproportionately.

Giving all children access to high-quality learning during school closures

‘Summer learning loss’ might sound like a short-term problem, but it can have a long-term impact.

There will be particular consequences for pupils who are in Year 10 who may miss out on a huge chunk of their GCSE syllabus. But for all children of all ages, falling behind over a full term can be seriously detrimental to future learning. Again, students from many backgrounds could be affected, but the scale of learning loss is likely to be higher for disadvantaged pupils.

How can we address this problem? We need to mitigate the differences that exist in the availability, at home, of high-quality learning opportunities.

Last week, the RSA suggested a number of measures which might help to ensure that all children have access to quality learning experiences over the coming months.

Some aim to ensure that the quality of home learning is not wholly determined by individual parents’ ability to provide an alternative to school. For example, funding internet access, rapidly expanding free online tutoring (using existing evidence-based models), and opening up access to online materials hosted by independent schools with charitable status.

Other steps - such as providing accessible guides to online resources for adults with low literacy levels - are intended to make it as easy as possible for all parents and careers to support their children’s learning.

Levelling up learning opportunities inside and outside of school

We must remember that these measures must be delivered in a way which avoids blaming or stigmatising particular families. The task to is recognise that particular groups of pupils are at disproportionate risk of falling behind and respond accordingly.

It will not be easy to deliver these measures at speed and at scale, but we owe it to our most disadvantaged children to anticipate and respond to circumstances which we know could have such a significant impact on their future. And we need to start thinking now about what catch-up interventions will be required in the new academic year, and how we ensure they are available for all.

At the RSA we believe that our collective response to the current crisis must be twofold. We need large-scale action now. But we also need to recognise the opportunities that come with change.

In the case of education, a strong response to the risk of ‘learning loss’ (accompanied by high quality data and research on its impact) could help us to understand better than ever before what is required if we want to meaningfully commit to levelling up learning opportunities for all, both inside and outside of school. 

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