The longer the lockdown continues, the more our poorest pupils are at serious risk of being even more disadvantaged in the years ahead. Significant support is needed now and when schools return to attempt to overcome this, argues James Turner

Education is one of the most powerful tools we have to promote social mobility and to improve the life chances of children from poorer backgrounds. However, as the COVID-19 crisis continues to threaten the health and livelihoods of so many people in the UK, it also poses a serious threat to social mobility, as the closure of schools threatens to significantly worsen the stubborn inequalities that already exist.

We see this inequality from a very early age, with disadvantaged children already 11 months behind their peers when they start school – a fact likely to be made worse by the current closure of most nurseries and early years settings, which are crucial in helping poorer children get off to a good start.

Our latest report shows that despite the heroic efforts of schools and teachers up and down the country, there is a wide gulf between the experiences of children from wealthy backgrounds learning at home, and those from more disadvantaged families. Pupils at private schools, for example, are more than twice as likely as their state educated peers to access online lessons every day, more likely to have one-to-one contact with a teacher and more likely to be returning work to teachers for feedback.

The recent launch of Oak National Academy, the government's nation-wide online learning platform, is a welcome development that will increase the chances of more children being able to access high-quality educational content from home. However, even with such positive developments, the playing field is far from level. In the poorest schools, 12% of teachers say that as many as a third of their students do not have adequate access to the internet, and many also report that their pupils do not have a quiet space to work – basic things needed for learning that middle class families take for granted.

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To add to our concerns, the evidence suggests that disadvantaged children are also more likely to rely on the academic and pastoral support offered by schools – and more likely to see their performance dip when out of the classroom for long periods (which we see, for example, over the long summer holidays). Given that disadvantaged students are already twice as likely to leave school without good English and maths GCSEs, an extended time away from school can only serve to widen that gap.

What happens over the next few weeks and months, will wash through the education system for years to come, especially the cancelling of this year's exams for A Level and GCSE pupils. The government's decision not to award results based entirely on predicted grades is welcome, as poorer pupils tend to have their grades under-predicted and go on to do better in real exams. Previous Sutton Trust research has shown that almost 1,000 A Level students from disadvantaged backgrounds have their grades under-predicted every year. However, we also know that teacher assessments can unconsciously work against low income children too. The government, exam boards and schools must ensure that this year's students are rewarded fairly for their efforts and any gaps that emerge need to be looked at closely.

Even for those due to leave the school system this year – for example those hoping to go to university in the autumn – the closure of schools could have real consequences for their futures, in terms of the grades they are awarded, the support they get in making important decisions about their next steps, and how prepared they are for further study. In fact, it is more important than ever for universities to take account of students' backgrounds when deciding who to admit next year. Contextual offers, which recognise a young person's potential and the different circumstances they have faced, will help universities to spot the brightest and best (rather than simply the best supported) in these difficult times, and crucially, help mitigate the effects of the lockdown.

As in many other areas of our lives, existing inequalities in education have been made more pronounced by the crisis of Covid-19. Schools, universities, students and parents have had to adapt almost overnight to a whole new way of working. In doing so, big differences in financial resources and cultural capital has been brought into even sharper relief.

As to what things will look like when some semblance of normality resumes, it is very difficult to say. There is no doubt that, without significant support both now and when schools return, our poorest pupils are at serious risk of being even more disadvantaged in the years ahead. But the situation is not hopeless. Remote learning can be as effective as traditional face-to-face teaching; teachers are working hard to overcome the challenges of remote learning and to plan for the future; and there is real potential to mobilise the other assets in our system to help poorer students catch up in this unprecedented time (for example through a big expansion in tutoring ).

Across the country and in different sectors we have seen many great initiatives at a local, regional and national level to support the most vulnerable in our society. Cliched as it may sound, in education it is certainly by working together – charities, schools, universities, government and business – that we can forge a more optimistic post-Covid future for young people.

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