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How can businesses help narrow the Covid learning gap?

Education researchers rarely agree. But on one thing, at least, they are unanimous: the pandemic has widened the gulf in educational attainment between disadvantaged pupils and their more privileged classmates and exposed deep inequalities in our education system.

A study by University College London’s Institute of Education found that during the first lockdown, while a fifth of pupils did less than an hour of schoolwork at home a day, just under a fifth regularly put in more than four hours. The study showed ‘substantial inequality’ between both regions and social groups.

What role can businesses play to narrow this gap?

To discuss this question – and whether online learning is the answer to closing the learning gap, The Spectator hosted a discussion, sponsored by EVERFI, that brought together some of the country’s leading experts on the topic.

The panellists – Robert Halfon MP, chair of the Commons Education Select Committee, Anne Longfield, until recently the Children’s Commissioner, Martin Finn, EVERFI’s Executive vice president of global operations, and Adrian Packer, executive principal of Core Education Trust – all agreed that schools cannot narrow the Covid learning gap on their own.

Martin Finn said it was now time for businesses that aren’t already engaged in education to step forward. “Whether they are small or large, they can help support non-core learning with employability skills, work experience, financial literacy and much more,” he said.

“All children need these skills for their future wellbeing and disadvantaged children will have least access to them without the support of businesses.”

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Adrian Packer urged businesses to ask schools how their business can help”. “We need agile partnerships between schools and businesses and, above all, local connections between schools and businesses,” he said

The school-business partnerships he’s seen have given pupils “a sense of aspiration”. “Suddenly they feel that what they are learning has a meaning outside the school gates and is worthwhile,” he said. He remembers one partnership, with the Lawn Tennis Association, that gave pupils an insight into the marketing, catering, finance, hospitality and sponsorship side to tennis all in one workshop.

Robert Halfon argued that the mammoth task of recovery demands a ‘much more sophisticated approach’ to the one we have now. Rather than compare different educational technology platforms in terms of their numbers of views and visits, he said, we should be looking at what impact they are having on pupils’ attainment and harnessing advances in technology, such as artificial intelligence.

Martin Finn agreed. The best educational technology – including that created and delivered by EVERFI itself – is based on evidence and can give teachers feedback on pupils’ progress. This leaves teachers time to focus on what they do best – supporting their pupils with much-needed face-to-face learning.

Meanwhile, Anne Longfield, who was until recently the Children’s Commissioner, set out her vision for the role of technology in education: building on schools’ central role in communities to develop them as ‘digital hubs’ providing resources and online learning for both pupils and their wider communities.

In terms of the learning gap itself, the panellists agreed that while academic subjects are crucial, it’s vital that we do not see the education children have lost over the past year purely in terms of traditional subjects.

“We need to develop a rounded education for all young people and subjects such as work-related learning, mental health and entrepreneurship need a strong focus in schools, particularly for disadvantaged pupils,” Martin Finn said.

EVERFI is an education company that works with businesses, government and charities to deliver technology-based products and bespoke educational engagement campaigns. Our programmes help bring together organisations, schools and young people to address big social challenges, such as career aspiration, financial education, employability skills and young people’s wellbeing.

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* Some of this article was published in The Spectator in March 2021

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