We have learned a lot during school closures over the past year. For example, we know that four types of resources are essential if children and young people are to succeed at home learning: access to technology; a good internet connection; a quiet space at home to study; and someone that has the skill and time to support and assist with home learning.
Unfortunately, we in the Society of Saint Vincent De Paul (SVP) see that at least one, if not all, are not available for some families we supported, thus exacerbating social and educational inequalities. We have also witnessed a dramatic increase in food insecurity which further hinders our young from being able to learn successfully.
These inequalities existed before Covid-19 and it is not good enough now to revert to how things were before the pandemic.
Our experiences in SVP have shed light on the day-to-day education and welfare challenges facing families:
* We support a family of five trying to survive on social welfare living in a one bedroom apartment. The apartment is always cold, it has mould growing in the bedroom. Three generations of the same family live in the apartment. The children aged between 15 and seven sleep in the bedroom while their mother and grandmother sleep in the tiny sitting room. They have lived this way for the past four years and are now at breaking point after enduring this situation through all the school closures and curtailments on daily living;
* We supported a family that had to use their 12 year old to act as an interpreter in sourcing accommodation for the whole family. We support many families in similar circumstances where English is not their first language and are left trying to navigate often complex systems alone;
* We have been supporting a single mother with five children trying to cope in emergency accommodation during lockdown after they lost their home to a fire. They don’t know when they will ever have a house again that they can call home;
* We also visit people living in direct provision who were struggling before Covid but are now facing additional challenges. A parent with a 15 and 17 year old, both aspire to becoming doctors, but feel worried that this may not be possible as they have not been able to keep up with their schoolwork, as they didn’t have laptops or adequate space to study in direct provision;
* Our members are supporting a lone parent who had to flee the family home due to domestic violence. She and her children are now living in a domestic violence refuge and as schools begin to reopen again, they had to leave their home without their schoolbooks, uniforms, and other necessary school materials;
In February 2021, SVP launched an online survey among our membership to capture the impact of the digital divide among primary, secondary and third level students.
Half of the 200 conferences surveyed had direct requests for help with digital devices since March 2020. The additional grants for ICT equipment provided by the Department of Education were insufficient. For many households struggling on a low income, having a laptop and broadband is a luxury, not a necessity.
Children and young people have lost out on other countless opportunities to learn, grow, develop socially and emotionally this past year- sport, music, drama.
So far, the Department of Education has committed to an extension, and increased funding of the School Completion Programme. Also, a reduction in the teacher pupil ratio for Deis primary and post primary schools was recently confirmed by the Minister for Education. This has provided some recognition to all those involved in the school community that measures need to be introduced to address the learning loss during school closures for children and young people experiencing disadvantage.
This is an important first step, but further sustained support is needed.
We know from our work in SVP that thousands of students experiencing disadvantage do not attend a Deis school, therefore they won’t benefit from these extra supports. We also are keenly aware that the inequalities that existed before Covid in the education system remain and are a worry for any parent living on a low income.
We need to invest in our education system so that it is genuinely free for everyone; access to free school- books for every student at primary and secondary school. Proper investment in schools so that parents will not be asked for “voluntary” contributions to fund their child’s education. Access to extra -curricular activities involving sport, drama, culture during the school term which do not involve parents having to pay for the occasion.
The Department of Education should lead on this, see itself as a department of the future and ensure no pupil gets left behind. We also need to see a whole-of-Government response to the effects of Covid-19 on our youngest members of society. Addressing educational disadvantage has to be part of an overall strategy to addressing poverty. That can be achieved by ensuring those on low incomes have an adequate income to meet their needs, access to affordable and accessible education, housing, healthcare, and transport.
We must act with urgency, but it is also right to take the time to develop a comprehensive approach, an approach that would see educational disadvantage being an issue of the past.
Returning to normal should not be what we aspire to for our young. Building back better is what we should be striving towards and at the heart of this plan should be inclusion. Basically, we need to leave education in a better place than we found it before Covid-19. Our young people deserve our policy makers to be ambitious in this pursuit.
Marcella Stakem is a research and policy officer with the Society of Saint Vincent De Paul (SVP)