The kids are not alright: London’s troubling new classroom divide

Katie Strick
·10-min read
 (Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

It’s only three weeks into the new school term but Nadja Mueller says her children are already close to breaking point.

Before the pandemic, Lily*, 11, and Sam*, nine, were grade-A students at their local state school in Hackney: motivated, ambitious, eager to learn. But over the 10 months since schools first closed their doors, the marketing director says her children have experienced a “total regression”. Lily struggles to keep up in class, Sam has tearful meltdowns and both have started sleeping in her bed citing a cocktail of fears around the virus, grandparents dying and never seeing their friends again.

“They’ve totally lost their spark,” says Mueller, describing how the pressures of the curriculum are leaving teachers no room for talk about the pandemic or feelings. As a single mother, she’s lucky she can work from home and assist with schoolwork, but there are other disrupting factors: siblings; children not liking to be taught by parents; Zoom fatigue. “Most adults struggle staring at a screen for hours a day,” she says. “To expect nine-year-olds just to sit down and get on with it is unrealistic.”

Louise Carter says she’s lucky if she can sit down with each of her five children once a weekLouise Carter
Louise Carter says she’s lucky if she can sit down with each of her five children once a weekLouise Carter

Like many parents, Mueller is concerned that the damage from a year of disrupted schooling will be irreparable. But she knows her children are some of the lucky ones: they have a parent who can work remotely, just one sibling competing for that parent’s attention and a school delivering three lessons a day on Microsoft Teams.

Naturally, she thinks of children without that support: those whose parents are working night shifts; those crammed into flats with one laptop between four.

“The worry is what happens when they meet one day at university or in the workplace,” says Christella Kupa, as her daughter Judith Zooms into a science experiment hosted by her independent school in Marylebone. “I feel very sad when I think about how huge that gap is going to be.”

Judith Cooper, who attends an independent international primary school in MaryleboneChristelle Kupa
Judith Cooper, who attends an independent international primary school in MaryleboneChristelle Kupa

Kupa’s concern over plummeting education standards points to a more concerning gap than the one within classrooms: that between state and privately educated students. According to the Social Mobility Commission, the educational divide between the two is “widening by the day”, with students at some state schools believed to have regressed by as much as six months over the first lockdown alone.

“They will know less. They will enter work knowing less. So they will earn less. And we will all be worse off,” explains director of the Institute for Fiscal Studies Paul Johnson.

England rugby star Maro Itoje, who recognises the fortune of his private education at Harrow, is the latest figure to highlight this disparity, calling for better state-funded laptop provision after Ofcom found that as many as 1.78 million children still don’t have access to devices for online learning, despite the Education Secretary’s £4 million laptop pledge.

England rugby star Maro Itoje is calling on the government to provide more for laptops to schoolchildren Dave Benett
England rugby star Maro Itoje is calling on the government to provide more for laptops to schoolchildren Dave Benett

Recent studies also found that around 200,000 children have almost no internet connection at home — four times the number of routers up for grabs in the Government’s latest tech package.

In many cases, the disparity in teaching hours is also stark. While 71 per cent of state school students say they’ve had between zero and one online lesson per day since the school shutdown on January 5, almost a third of private school pupils have received at least four daily online lessons, with uniform checks, PE lessons, assemblies and even live classes from partner schools in Rwanda among the remote offerings by independent institutions. Meanwhile parents at some council-funded schools say their children haven’t set their eyes on a teacher since the shutdown began.

Leading charity Villers Park Education Trust has warned that the result of this disparity is “a whole generation of young people” being lost to education, with children owning laptops more than twice as likely to achieve five A* to C-grade GCSEs. Although this year’s A-Levels and GCSEs have been cancelled, many students will still have to sit “mini exams” from home, prompting concerns for those who’ve missed swathes of the curriculum. The repercussions could long outlast the virus: according to the children’s commissioner Anne Longfield, closing Covid’s education gap could take up to a decade.

For some, the impact will be lifelong, says Nadine Ahmed, 18, studying for her A-Levels at a state school in north-west London. Though she hoped to study Law at Oxbridge, factors outside her control mean she’ll be lucky to get into any Russell Group university. Among the setbacks: four weeks of missed schooling due to Covid outbreaks, poor broadband signal, half a year without a laptop.

“I spent six months viewing PowerPoints on a tiny phone screen,” she says, describing how she would submit homework by taking photos as she didn’t have a PC or printer at home. “It feels like the odds are against me just because of who I am and where I’m from,” she adds. Is it fair to compare her grades to a private school Oxbridge candidate with round-the-clock teaching, a Macbook and 24/7 internet?

A-Level student Nadine Ahmed now worries she won’t get into OxbridgeNadine Ahmed
A-Level student Nadine Ahmed now worries she won’t get into OxbridgeNadine Ahmed

For some parents, that gap is already clear to see at their kitchen tables. “It’s been pretty shocking,” says mother-of-three Bisola Fasanya, whose children are split between a state and private school in Bromley. Her son Ayo, six, receives one-to-one reading sessions, printed worksheets and an iPad alongside his two live lessons a day from the local independent boys’ school. Meanwhile four-year-old Amarachi only sees her teacher alongside 60 other children in a 20-minute daily online huddle.

The state school has offered no teacher feedback all term, nor a laptop or printed worksheets. “What about families without a printer?” asks Fasanya, as reports emerge of some parents having to copy worksheets out by hand. When children eventually return to the classroom, “teachers will be forced to return to the level of the lowest-achieving student,” she adds. “[The effects of lockdown] will impact the whole class.”

Ahmed and Fasanya are among thousands of children in the capital whose postcode and income have put them on the wrong side of lockdown’s digital divide. “It was a chasm for us,” says Rebecca Hickey, principal of eight state schools across the Harris Academies. Her students are lucky to be part of a federation that has provided laptops to all students - they’d have “struggled” with just state support - but others have not been so fortunate.

Rebecca Hickey, Principal of Harris Academy Peckham
Rebecca Hickey, Principal of Harris Academy Peckham

“The government needs to be more realistic about what is deliverable,” says Andrew O’Neill, headteacher at All Saints Catholic College in North Kensington, which is yet to receive any devices for the Spring term. Linda Heiden, founder of voluntary group Lambeth TechAid, says many families have one device for two or three children.

For multiple-child families, there are competing factors aside from laptops, such as space to work and parents to supervise. “Try teaching onomatopoeia to a seven-year-old when her brother is hurling toy buses at her,” says James*, a father of three in east London. Louise Curtis, a single mother-of-five studying for a healthcare degree in Elephant and Castle, says she’s lucky if she can sit down with each child once a week.

Curtis insists she is lucky: her children are hard-working and support each other. But what about only-children or those in chaotic households? Rachel*, a GP in Tooting, says she only realised the impact of her husband juggling two jobs from home when teachers called last Friday: their daughter, 11, hadn’t logged into a lesson all week. Meanwhile a state school teacher on Twitter says she’s seen children attending classes from cupboards to escape noisy family homes, and Hickey is aware of the difficult home situations many of her students will be grappling with. Domestic violence, knife crime and drug abuse are some of the issues her welfare team have been tackling with pupils and they “might never know everything everyone’s been through”.

Louise Carter says she feels lucky her children are so hard-workingLouise Carter
Louise Carter says she feels lucky her children are so hard-workingLouise Carter

For Hickey, recognising the mental effects of the lockdown on this generation is paramount. Last week Labour leader Keir Starmer urged ministers to address the “devastating” mental health crisis affecting young people, with children’s counselling platform Mable Therapy reporting a 50 per cent spike in weekly referrals since September.

“There’s a real sense of doom,” explains head of counselling Helen Spiers, warning of a “mental health tsunami” among children as she lists the issues experienced among clients: behavioural problems; OCD; social anxiety and anxiety over health, exam cancellation and future prospects. “Even as adults we’re struggling, and we’ve had much more life experience to help us cope. For children and young people a year is a lifetime. It feels like their life is on hold and it can be really cruel.”

For some, this fear has manifested itself physically. Simon*, a father of four from north London, says his 11-year-old daughter has developed a tic and started hallucinating, which has worsened since the second school closures were announced. Others have seen the effects manifest in more subtle ways. Rachel Beech, a tech founder from east London, says there are times she worries her son Elliot, nine, has forgotten how to be a child. She cried seeing him playing “carefree” in a paddling pool with a friend over summer and worries his conversation has become too adult: “you expect them to be making fart jokes and being silly; not having conversations about the temperature a vaccine should be stored at.”

Spiers notes that mental health is a particular concern for children without siblings at home. While adults can still meet a friend for a walk, primary age children are too young to leave the house unaccompanied, and many don’t know how to talk to each other on the phone, adds Gemma Tortella-Procter, mother of nine- and five-year-old daughters at a state school Hackney. “Their friendships are based on playing and doing things together - it’s not easy to replicate that over a screen.”

Louise Carter’s five children playing in the snowLouise Carter
Louise Carter’s five children playing in the snowLouise Carter

Spiers agrees that the essence of school is much more than the academics. For her, “it was an opportunity everyday to see my friends, interrupted with adults trying to teach me things” - an important point for parents and teachers to remember as children adjust to weeks or months without seeing their friends. Kupa says she’s set up weekly Zoom hide-and-seek sessions for Judith and her playmates, while Mueller is among parents scheduling in tech-free days to offer breathing space. “They’re children and this new world we’re living in isn’t very childlike,” she says after an afternoon practicing reading and basic maths through Game of Life instead of a laptop. Of course, she worries about the academic implications of the last 10 months, but at this stage her main concern is keeping the children engaged and “getting them through this period without lasting trauma".

But it’s not just the academic side of school experiencing a widening gap. “There’s definitely a divide growing,” says Spiers, warning that school referrals “much more likely” to come from socio-economically deprived backgrounds. “They may have very real problems such as parents losing their job and not knowing who is going to pay the rent or where the next meal is coming from," she explains. "For those children, even if they have access to learning, they’re unable to engage with it as they’re overwhelmed by bigger problems”.

So what can be done to avoid that “lost generation”? Getting children back to school is a priority, say MPs and teachers urging the Government to reopen classrooms before Easter, but in the meantime, there’s a long way to go in closing the digital divide, says Social Mobility Foundation leader Sarah Atkinson, whose charity is among organisations bringing devices to those who need it most through its End Laptop Poverty campaign. 73 per cent of school leaders say their pupils still do not have sufficient access to digital devices and the internet - a problem that will affect school children far beyond the end of the pandemic. “This isn’t about tech,” says Atkinson. “It’s about giving kids an education and a fair chance in life.”

For help accessing laptops or other resources, visit techforuk.com or socialmobility.org.uk

For more information on education charity Future Frontiers’ coaching programme for disadvantaged students, visit futurefrontiers.org.uk

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