Disadvantaged students struggle with e-learning due to lack of food, new report reveals

Students who are eligible for free school meals are more likely to report that environmental factors – such as inadequate technology or lack of space – challenge their ability to participate in remote education

A new report has revealed that disadvantaged students are much more likely to struggle with remote education, largely driven by a lack of food deriving from financial instability.

Surveying 3,409 parents across England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland during the first lockdown last year, psychologists from the University of Sussex found that almost one in five (19%) of primary-level learners from lower-income backgrounds report that a lack of food makes home learning difficult.

With a focus on the amount of time spent tackling remote learning from home, as well as how many school-provided resources were used, pupil engagement and motivation, how easy/difficult students found remote learning and why, researchers hope to form an idea of how COVID-19 and subsequent school closures have impacted education for young people across the UK.

According to the survey, parents of students from disadvantaged backgrounds – defined as those whose children are eligible for free school meals, those who were struggling financially, or those who do not possess a university-level education – were much more likely to report that home learning was a challenge due to environmental factors such as inadequate technology, lack of space, too much noise, and, in some cases, a lack of food.

At primary level, 19% of parents of pupils assigned to free school meals (FSM) reported that a lack of food made remote learning hard, compared to just 3% of their non-FSM-eligible peers. For parents of secondary-age students, on the other hand, 10% of those on FSM cited lack of food as a difficulty, compared to just 2% of those from families who were more financially secure.

On top of this, 39% of FSM-eligible secondary students reported that a lack of suitable technology – such as laptops, tablets or PCs – restricted their learning ability, compared to 19% of their non-FSM peers.

Furthermore, students on the government’s FSM scheme were more likely to find learning tasks difficult and too numerous than their non-FSM counterparts. This trend was more evident across secondary school cohorts, where 65% of FSM-assigned learners found their assignments more challenging, compared with 48% of their non-eligible peers.

“School closures, while clearly necessary during this public health crisis, risk entrenching inequality” – Lewis Doyle, doctoral researcher, School of Psychology, University of Sussex

Researchers also found that FSM students generally spent less time on their learning; with 34% of FSM primary pupils committing one hour a day or less to e-learning, compared to 25% of their non-FSM peers. At secondary level, 23% of FSM students spent one hour a day or less on home learning, compared to 14% of non-eligible pupils.

Across primary and secondary age groups, the survey found that boys were more likely to struggle with remote learning than girls, with primary school boys being 7% more likely than girls to be spending just one hour or less per day on home learning (30% vs 23%); also being 5% less likely to be doing 3+ hours per day (23% vs 28%).

Among secondary-age participants, boys were 4% more likely to be doing one hour or less per day (17% vs 13%); and 10% less likely to be doing 3+ hours per day (42% vs 52%).

Girls of all ages were far more engaged and motivated than their male counterparts – especially across secondary education, where girls were more than twice as likely to be very engaged and very motivated when it came to remote learning.

The study also highlighted a disparity between the home learning provisions offered across the private and state sectors. According to the findings, independent schools were more than twice as likely than state schools to offer pupil-teacher interactions during the first lockdown; and more than five times as likely to provide opportunities for digital peer interaction – both of which are fundamental to children’s academic and socio-emotional development

Lewis Doyle, doctoral researcher from Sussex’s School of Psychology and co-author of the study, commented: “In line with our previous research, these results suggest that the school closures may adversely affect economically disadvantaged children to a greater extent than their more privileged peers, thus driving further distance between the two groups in terms of educational attainment and future life outcomes.

“School closures,” he added, “while clearly necessary during this public health crisis, risk entrenching inequality.”

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