The effects of Covid-19 on pre-existing inequalities in the UK

Blog by Jáfia Naftali Câmara Doctoral Researcher, School of Education, University of Bristol

The Covid-19 pandemic has profoundly impacted not only lifestyle and work, but also how people access education and learning. The effects of Covid-19 on education have accentuated the inequalities already embedded within the UK’s education system and demonstrated the relationships between deep-rooted educational, systemic and economic inequalities.

Disadvantaged students, including refugees and asylum seekers living in Britain, face many barriers such as digital exclusion and food poverty. Poor immigrant children are also affected by immigration laws and procedures that exclude them from accessing vital services and support. In response to the effects of Covid-19, the UK government’s policy interventions have made centralised decisions enabling for profitable opportunities for education businesses and unsatisfactory support services for disadvantaged communities.

Digital exclusion

There is an obvious link between digital inequality and income as poor families are less likely to have consistent internet access and the percentage of homes with an internet connection increases with income. While 99% of households with an income of over £40,000 have internet access, only 51% of households earning between £6,000 and £10,000 have internet at home.[1]

Among the challenges faced by schools and students also include limited access to digital devices. Many schools have supplied their staff with IT equipment, however, over a third of teachers were providing their own devices, and three-fifths either had to provide their own video equipment or remained without access throughout the pandemic.

Unsurprisingly, it has been more challenging for schools serving students from the most disadvantaged backgrounds.[2] A recent report found that during the 2021 lockdown, just 10% of teachers reported that all their students had appropriate access to a digital device for remote schooling, and 17% reported that more than one in five of their students do not have any access. In state schools, the situation is considerably worse with just five percent of teachers reporting that all their students have a device, compared to 54% at private schools. [3]

child using a digital device for schooling at home

During the first lockdown in 2020, research by LLAKES found that 71% of state school students received no or less than one daily online lesson. Over two million young people did not do any schoolwork at home or less than an hour a day. While 31% of private schools delivered four or more live online lessons every day, only 6% of state schools were able to provide similar.[4] Teachers in publicly-funded, mainstream schools in England were in contact with six out of ten pupils, but only four in ten had returned their last piece of set work.[5]

Accessing remote schooling

Digital exclusion has made it practically impossible for poor young people to access remote schooling. The Department for Education (DfE) attempted to address this inequality by launching the “get help with technology programme” to distribute devices to students. Nevertheless, its roll-out of laptops was slow and it had no specific strategy to support marginalised communities such as refugee-background students who are impacted by policies that limit their access to vital services.

The DfE’s provision of technology was initially based on young people’s eligibility for free school meals.[6] However, asylum-seeking families have no recourse to public funds (NRPF) and are generally ineligible for free school meals.[7]  In the autumn of 2020, the government roll-out of laptops had already started to crash forcing many schools to use their own resources with two thirds (66%) of senior leaders in state schools needing to provide digital devices for disadvantaged pupils themselves.

As of January of 2021, 47% of state schools had only been able to provide half of their students with laptops.[8] Even in the cases where students were given laptops by their schools, many have experienced issues with poor internet connection. The Office for Students found that 52% of students surveyed had their learning impacted by slow, unreliable internet connections, 71% reported lack of access to a quiet study space while 56% said they lacked access to appropriate online course materials and 18% were impacted by lack of access to a computer, laptop or tablet during the COVID-19 lockdown.[9]

The lack of consistent access to digital devices and broadband at home is consistent with other pre-existing inequalities, such as food insecurity, faced by disadvantaged children. Similarly, inequalities in food security and nutrition have worsened during Covid-19. Four million people including 2.3 million children experienced moderate to severe food insecurity in 2020, many of whom had to skip meals because they could not afford to access food.[10] One in four young people under 25 years old have experienced food insecurity.[11] Food poverty was already on the rise pre-Covid-19 in the UK. Considering the significant levels of hunger among young people, free school meals have been vital for children and families during the pandemic.

Contracting and profiteering

In March of 2020, the UK government gave a £425m contract to Edenred to help run the free school meals voucher scheme despite evidence that the firm’s IT systems were incapable of meeting the demand of providing vouchers to around 1.4 million children eligible to receive free school meal vouchers.[12]

As expected, the roll-out was slow and time-consuming for schools and families who were unable to access meals.[13] After weeks of waiting for the vouchers, some families had difficulty using them because the vouchers failed when families tried to use them at tills. Many children were not eligible for free school meals initially, although the government later extended free school meal eligibility to include some children of groups who have no recourse to public funds.[14]

Despite this, poor families relied heavily on food charities and school staff using their own money to buy food for families as they waited to receive free school meal vouchers. The situation has been so severe that one in five schools have set up food banks to help families.[15] The government’s decision to give a profitable contract to Edenred demonstrates how responses to the effects of Covid-19 presented opportunities for businesses to participate in education policy while making huge profits. Despite Edenred’s disastrous performance in 2020, the government allowed them to relaunch the scheme in 2021.

Beyond the profitable opportunity with the free school meals voucher scheme, there has also been contracting out of direct educational provision with the National Tutoring Programme (NTP)[16] and academic mentors programme launched in November 2020.[17] The DfE provided the Education Endowment Foundation with £76 million to lead the delivery of NTP Tuition Partners while Teach First has been provided with £6.4 million to support the recruitment, training and placement of Academic Mentors into schools, with the UK government being responsible for funding the £19k salaries of Academic Mentors.[18]

The Tuition Partners programme involves a range of organisations, national and regional tuition providers, charities, and private providers contracted to run tutoring students in schools. However, it would have been more beneficial to schools, as key providers of social support for families and disadvantaged students, if the government had made the funding available directly to schools, instead of making them wait for the implementation of a new complex and expensive tuition support system.

Inequalities such as food poverty, digital divide, and learning loss are intertwined with unequal redistribution of wealth, low wages, and immigration laws that push poor immigrants into destitution. Asylum seekers are not allowed to work and must live on a limited allowance of £39.63 per week.

Discussions around educational inequalities must be contextualised within wider inequalities such as poverty, no recourse to public funds, weak worker’s rights, and an unsatisfactory welfare system. While the UK government made centralised decisions, and education businesses have had profitable opportunities, it has not been considered that the solutions for addressing learning inequalities must not be addressed solely within schools, but also with structural, economic and social justice.