Disadvantaged students much more likely to have disengaged from school work

Live online classes more likely in private schools, finds Trinity College Dublin study

Students in disadvantaged secondary schools are three times more likely to have disengaged with their teachers since schools closed last March. Photograph: iStock

Students in disadvantaged secondary schools are three times more likely to have disengaged with their teachers during the lockdown, according to a new study.

The survey of more than 700 second level teachers by researchers at Trinity College Dublin, throws new light on the scale of the digital divide across schools since they closed last March.

Some 32 per cent of teachers in disadvantaged or Deis schools reported “low engagement” levels with their students, compared to just 11 per cent across other schools.

Low engagement was defined as an average of less than 30 per cent of students engaging with teachers.


A lack of interest was the main reason for low engagement, followed by lack of support at home and limited access to devices.

All-boys’ schools were also significantly more likely to report low engagement than all-girls’ schools.

Overall, teachers were in touch with their students about two to three times a week, except for transition year where contact was much less frequent.

Negative impact

This contact was mostly through emailing, sharing links or resources and providing feedback on e-learning platforms such as Microsoft Teams or Google Classroom.

There was relatively little live teaching online during schools closures. However, teachers in private schools were more likely to report using real-time teaching or recorded classes.

The study found that the lack of personal contact experienced by students and teachers had a major negative impact on teaching and learning when they left the classroom.

A fifth of teachers surveyed said they did not foster collaboration among students during lockdown.

And more than half of teachers reported a decrease in this kind of collaboration since school closures.

As one teacher told researchers: “I feel the lack of personal connection with students places a barrier in the way of motivation, engagement, collaboration, and all else in teaching.

“Technology has helped me to organise lessons and information but places a large obstacle in place for teaching and learning especially for disadvantaged students.”

Dr Ann Devitt, director of research at TCD's school of education, said the findings show that more interactive and collaborative approaches to teaching impacted positively on students' learning.

However, she said nearly 20 per cent of teachers reported never fostering collaboration during school closures.

“Our findings show that there is a need for teachers to foster relationships with students when they return to the classroom,” she said.


“But there is also a need for teachers to be ready in case such a shutdown happens again and we believe CPD [continuous professional development] is needed for teachers on how to provide collaborative learning online.”

The study also found larger schools were also more likely to report lower engagement levels, while teachers who provided feedback to students online were less likely to report low engagement levels.

Schools where there was a whole-school approach to online learning also fared better. This was less likely to be the case in disadvantaged schools.

Teachers’ self-confidence to work remotely consistently emerged as a significant factor in levels of engagement.

In addition, teachers who reported a lack of a dedicated school IT infrastructure are more likely to report low engagement.

The findings are contained in a report, Teaching and Learning During School Closures: Lessons Learned, based on an analysis of the findings of a survey which took place in early June.

This report was compiled by Dr Ann Devitt, Dr Aibhín Bray and Dr Joanne Banks from the School of Education and Dr Eilís Ní Chorcora from Trinity Access.

Carl O'Brien

Carl O'Brien

Carl O'Brien is Education Editor of The Irish Times. He was previously chief reporter and social affairs correspondent