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The pandemic is widening educational inequality

EVEN BEFORE the pandemic sent pupils packing, there was a large gap in achievement between rich and poor students. In Britain in 2018, for example, children from disadvantaged backgrounds were twice as likely to leave school without basic qualifications in English and maths as their wealthier peers. After months of coronavirus-induced school closures, that gap has no doubt grown even wider.

With kids banned from classrooms, most learning has moved online. The shift has been easier for some than for others. In Britain, nearly two-thirds of private schools already had platforms for online learning in place, compared with just a quarter of the most poorly funded state schools, according to the Sutton Trust, a charity. Well-off children, meanwhile, are far more likely to have access to the necessary kit, including laptops and reliable broadband internet access. To reach the learning materials provided, many poorer ones have to compete with other family members for access to a sole laptop, or use their smartphones. Some have to forgo lessons entirely. This is a problem for rich and poor countries alike. America’s education department reckons that nearly one in eight children do not have internet access via a desktop or laptop at home.

Even those pupils who can successfully get online are likely to fall behind. Research has shown that poorer students perform worse in online courses than face-to-face ones. A study by researchers at Harvard and Brown universities found that, after American schoolchildren were sent home in March, usage of Zearn, an online maths platform, was directly correlated with median household incomes in the surrounding neighbourhood (see chart), and that the achievement of good marks in online tests (“badges”) showed an even wider discrepancy.

Many pupils will miss the order of a bricks-and-mortar classroom. Remote learning requires far more self-direction and intrinsic motivation than the in-person sort. For disadvantaged students, who may have to worry about supporting themselves and their families financially, this can be hard to muster. Well-educated, prosperous parents are more likely to encourage learning for its own sake, and are better able to help their children succeed academically.

Do not expect conditions to improve once pupils are allowed back into classrooms: a survey carried out by the Institute for Fiscal Studies, a British think-tank, found that poorer parents were less inclined than rich ones to send their children back to school at the earliest opportunity.