Little inequality in homeschool provision and engagement – other factors may cause achievement gaps

How schools, parents and children coped with the biggest challenge in the history of modern education, is at the centre of a ground-breaking research project, funded by the Economic and Social Research Council, UK Research and Innovation, analysing the reactions of schools and families to the school closures in 2020 and 2021.

As schools break up for the summer holiday, amid rising COVID infection rates and fears of further lockdowns next winter, the study by researchers at the Institute for Social and Economic Research at the University of Essex highlights that efforts of schools and families combined to adapt to the challenges of education during school closures.

Most schools in the UK were closed to all but key workers and vulnerable children from March 2020 and again from January 2021, with each closure period lasting at least 8 weeks. School lessons were delivered online or offline to children in their homes and parents took a big role in supporting their children’s learning efforts. The research used data from families taking part in the COVID-19 Study of Understanding Society, the UK Household Longitudinal Study, to look at how parents and children engaged in home learning during the school closures, and analysed differences and similarities between the two periods of lockdown.

The study found that schools significantly improved their provision of online and offline lessons between the first and second period of school closures. In response to this, both primary and secondary school students increased their levels of engagement, and most parents helped more with schoolwork . These patterns were observed regardless of socio-economic background.

This study is the first comprehensive analysis comparing the two periods of school closures in the UK. It finds that schools improved their distance learning provision, with secondary schools offering three times more online lessons in the second closure period than in the first. It also finds that the number of online and offline lessons provided by schools did not significantly differ by school characteristics or the composition of the pupil intake. On top of this, online lessons seem to have reduced socio-economic inequalities in the time spent on schoolwork by primary school children and gender gaps in time spent on schoolwork by secondary school children

While there are no significant socio-economic differentials in school provision of distance learning or parental help at home, the study acknowledges that some students could have fared worse than others during the period of home-schooling, This is possibly due to a lack of equipment, space, or family circumstances, as well as repeated bubble closures which might have hit the progress of children in more deprived areas of the country hard However, these inequalities were outside of the control of school leaders and teachers and remain so.

The key findings

  • More online or offline lessons offered by primary schools increased the time spent by both parents and children on schoolwork.

  • In secondary school, an increase in school inputs increased students’ study time, but had a mixed impact on parental time: extra offline lessons increased time by parents while extra online lessons decreased it.

  • Families used freely available additional learning materials during the first closure period to compensate for a lack of lessons provided by some schools, and this did not differ much across families with different socio-economic backgrounds.

  • The provision of on-line lessons had an equalizing effect: it reduced differences in the time primary school children from different socio-economic backgrounds spent on schoolwork, and in secondary schools reduced gender differences in students’ study time.

Dr Birgitta Rabe, Reader at the University of Essex, leading the research said: “From a policy perspective, there are some important lessons from this study. Socio-economic differences in learning outcomes due to school closures may have relatively little to do with differences in learning provision by schools or the time parents spent home schooling.

If there are learning gaps from this period they may be much more closely related to structural differences across families, which affect factors such as the learning set-up parents can offer their children at home, parents’ ability to help children effectively with their school work and local COVID-19 infection rates, to name a few.

The offer of online and offline lessons provided by schools resulted in more engagement from students and from parents of primary school children in particular, in some cases leading to a reduction of socio-economic differentials.

Any future school closures should ensure a high number of education resources is provided by schools to all families and be accompanied by measures that mitigate the disadvantages arising from a home environment that makes effective home schooling more difficult for some families.”

Notes to Editors

  1. This report, Coping with school closures: the changing responses of schools, parents and children during COVID-19, published by the Institute for Social and Economic Research at the University of Essex, was written by Professor Emilia Del Bono, Dr Laura Fumagali, Dr Angus Holford and Dr Birgitta Rabe. It was funded by the Economic and Social Research Council’s Covid 19 Rapid Response grant. More details of the research programme are here

  2. This research uses data from Understanding Society and the additional Understanding Society Covid-19 data sets. Understanding Society is the UK Household Longitudinal Study. It follows tens of thousands of households across the UK through yearly interviews that focus on social, economic, and health topics. The Study is based at the Institute for Social and Economic Research at the University of Essex. For more information visit the Understanding Society website

  3. The Understanding Society Covid-19 study is a monthly survey on the experiences and reactions of the UK population to the Covid-19 pandemic, funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) and the Health Foundation. The first wave was carried out online in April 2020 and subsequent waves have been carried out at regular intervals. All Understanding Society adult sample members aged 16+ were invited to participate. ESRC is part of UK Research and Innovation. The Health Foundation is an independent charity committed to bringing about better health and health care for people in the UK.

  4. For an embargoed copy of the full report (published 16 July 2021) or interviews with the research team please contact Louise Cullen, Communications and Engagement Manager, Institute for Social and Economic Research, University of Essex

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