"We are yet to see the fallout… when children return to school we'll get a better picture"

The 'attainment gap' between the most and least advantaged school pupils was brought into sharp focus after the furore over disparities in A-level results, and recent reports suggesting that years of progress to narrow this gap have been lost thanks to Covid-19 measures. Ella Rhodes spoke to two educational psychologists about their role in supporting pupils, families, schools and teachers to address the attainment gap.

After exams were cancelled due to Covid-19, the government initially used an algorithm to calculate A-level results based on teacher’s predicted grades as well as a school’s historical performance. This led to A-level results in England, Wales and Northern Ireland being 40 per cent lower than teacher’s assessed grades – mainly affecting students from deprived areas, with similar issues seen in Scottish Highers results. Later, central government reverted to using teacher’s predicted grades in both A-level, GCSE and Higher results. 

Many argued that the measures around pupil results only served to perpetuate the attainment gap between the worst and best off pupils. Lockdown seemed to have a similar effect with recent research by the Education Endowment Foundation suggesting that lockdown, and partial school closures, were likely to have reversed progress made in closing the gap since 2011. Digital inequality has also had a significant impact with another report by the Office for National Statistics finding that 60,000 children aged 11 to 18 did not have access to any form of internet at home, and that 700,000 lacked computers or tablets. 

Secretary of State for Education Gavin Williamson has recently announced some measures to tackle the attainment gap in England including £350m for disadvantaged students, via the National Tutoring Programme, to help them catch up after schools were largely closed over lockdown. £650m has been announced to be shared across state primary and secondary schools, which is likely to be spent on small-group tuition. In June the Scottish government announced that schools and local authorities would receive an extra £50 million to improve attainment – particularly for those pupils in more deprived areas. 

Educational Psychologist Vivian Hill, Director of Educational Psychology training at UCL Institute of Education, also a member of the British Psychological Society's Poverty to Flourishing campaign’s expert reference group, said that by the end of secondary education children who are eligible for free school meals are often around two years behind their more advantaged peers. She said 'without hesitation or doubt' that Covid-19 had had a disproportionate impact on the poorest and the most vulnerable members of society.

‘I think we are yet to see the fallout, and when children return to school we'll get a better picture, but I think we already know that the gap is really quite considerable and that the impact of online education has only served to highlight even further the differences in access to education and the impact of poverty on children's life opportunities. I think this has given psychologists, and certainly the British Psychological Society, the opportunity to really use that data and evidence to make a strong claim for strategically targeting our most vulnerable children and young people and not allowing the gap to widen, but to actually focus our attention on supporting those young people. I'm particularly keen that that is based on evidence-based interventions.’  

However, Hill added that while it was right that people were concerned about what had been happening to children during lockdown it was important to consider the learning which has occurred since it began. ‘We're certainly hearing from families that, after the initial shock, they have been able to get into routines and children are developing a wide range of skills and abilities… we mustn't have a completely deficit model of children and young people.’ Hill said that some of the factors which most often lead to successful school interventions will have been apparent during home learning, for example child-centred learning, a focus on the individual, the building of respect and trust, balancing autonomy and accountability, and creativity and flexibility. 

‘Children may have been learning some of those core concepts and skills but in very different ways and that's what we're thinking about as children are going back to school. I know there's been a lot of discussion about funding retired teachers, getting people back into the workforce. But what we know about what makes the biggest impact and raises standards for children is having the highest quality teachers, really high quality teaching, being in schools with strong leadership, and reflective practice and research – or using evidence based interventions.’

There is definitely a role for educational psychologists in helping to close the attainment gap, Hill said, through looking at how the curriculum is delivered as well as children’s strengths, abilities, emotional needs and how they learn best. ‘If we are looking at increasing the pupil premium we might be able to reduce teacher-pupil ratios. We're certainly being encouraged to be teaching children in bubbles and smaller groups and that would be a really powerful way that we can help teachers to think about how best to teach children and how children can learn how to draw on metacognitive strategies, so that when the child is perhaps having a period of home education they're much more attuned to the most effective ways of learning and that they have effective strategies to draw on.’

Alison Crawford, Principal Educational Psychologist at Glasgow City Council, said in Scotland it remained to be seen what the full impact on the attainment gap in the country would be and which children will have been most affected. She suggested a need to focus on supporting individual schools and their specific contexts. ‘I think what we'll see is schools responding in a staged and planned way to identify needs as children return to school and then to put in appropriate resources over the course of the next session. In Glasgow we're talking about this as perhaps a two-year plan before we actually find out what the full impact has been and what we need to do to try and redress some of that.’ 

Crawford said there had been a role for educational psychologists throughout the Covid-19 crisis. ‘Certainly from the perspective of educational psychology services in Scotland there has been no lull, if anything it has been busier. That work involved helping schools to support children and families – albeit while they've been at home. The role will continue right through and ranges from informing strategic policy decision-making for children and young people to working with individual children and families. Certainly in Glasgow we're gearing up for a very busy session next session.’

Becoming a member of the British Psychological Society’s Covid-19 Coordinating Group, focusing on the effects of isolation and confinement, Crawford said had opened her eyes to the ways psychology can be better placed to inform policy. ‘If psychology wants to be able to inform discussions and decision-making we have to move rapidly. We have to be able to produce accessible psychology and a good evidence base quickly for people in a way that can be easily understood and communicated. We can't take as much time as we would normally to consider evidence, plan and report when we find ourselves in a crisis situation like this, and I think, as a profession, we've responded really positively.’

Crawford has also been working with teachers in Glasgow about the lessons they have learned throughout the Covid-19 crisis. ‘Some themes that are coming from that work are ethos, leadership, and having a strong set of guiding principles that were already embedded in a school culture, a really good partnership with third sector organisations that's live, real and very responsive. The other theme in Glasgow is nurture and making sure that everything that we're doing is underpinned by a strong relational context and an understanding of children and families' wellbeing and I think wellbeing will be at the centre of, I'd hope, the majority of recovery plans you'll see in Scotland.’

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