School closures affected disadvantaged students much more severely, study shows

School leaders fear digital divide will widen achievement gap, ESRI research says

School closures have had a much more severe impact on students’ learning and motivation in disadvantaged secondary schools, a new ESRI study indicates.

The research says school leaders fear a key outcome of the Covid-19 lockdown will be a widening of the gap between less well-off and more affluent students.

The study found almost half of school leaders surveyed last month had issues with access to broadband and devices, based on responses from one in three secondary schools, nationally.

These challenges were significantly higher for disadvantaged – or Deis – schools, students from lower income families, and schools in areas with poor broadband.


Overall, distance learning was regarded by school leaders as either similar to, or worse than, standard practice.

Live online videos and the use of virtual platforms were the distance learning tools of choice.

However, there was evidence of “digital exclusion” with schools in areas with lower average household incomes.

For example, while feedback for students was provided online across all schools, most disadvantaged schools (55 per cent) relied on post or other physical means to provide feedback to students for some classes, while this was much less common in other schools (37 per cent).

There was also a much greater reliance on phone-based communication – such as WhatsApp – for some classes in disadvantaged schools (83 per cent) compared with non-disadvantaged schools (52 per cent).

There was also evidence of a stark divide in whether students had a quiet place to study and a desk to sit at, with Deis students much less likely to have a suitable study place.

Interviews with school leaders show that some schools ended up buying mobile credit for students, or giving school computers to students to help narrow the digital divide.


The negative impact of distance learning on student attendance and participation in lessons also appears to have been more pronounced among Deis schools. Some 89 per cent of Deis schools rated participation as either “worse” or “much worse”, compared with 70 per cent of non-Deis schools.

Some issues were common across income groups, such as access to devices. Even families which had suitable devices in the home were put under pressure, with devices often shared among parents working from home and children across primary, second-level and higher education.

As a result, many students who did engage with online learning did so using a smartphone, which school leaders recognised as inadequate for learning but “better than nothing”.

Overall, it found school closures particularly affected learning, wellbeing, motivation and engagement of Leaving Cert and Junior Cert students, with more severe impacts being reported among Deis schools.

Range of supports

In addition to better communication from the Department of Education, schools indicated that they will need a range of concrete supports in order to best prepare and provide for students in late August and September.

These will include resources for ICT, professional development and supports to maximise teaching time for students entering sixth year.

Meanwhile, the Dáil’s Covid-19 committee has been told the lack of access to schools and therapists for children with special needs during the pandemic has been “catastrophic”.

The chairwoman of advocacy agency Inclusion Ireland, Lorraine Dempsey, highlighted the emotional upset for parents “of seeing children not being able to sleep, destroying their houses or assaulting siblings and not through any fault of their child but arising out of the frustrations and lack of supports”.

The charity also told the committee that parents had been left confused by the changing message the Department of Education was giving about the summer school programme for children with special needs.

Ms Dempsey told committee chairman Independent TD Michael McNamara “the lack of access to school and therapists over the last three months has been catastrophic and I cannot overstate that enough”.

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

Marie O'Halloran

Marie O'Halloran

Marie O'Halloran is Parliamentary Correspondent of The Irish Times