When schools shut their doors on March 12th, many of the supports that aim to address the inequalities associated with low socio-economic status - breakfast clubs, counselling supports, external mentoring - were also shut down.
Undoubtedly the school closures impacted on all students in all schools, but the negative impact of the lockdown was worse in areas of socio-economic disadvantage.
Research by Trinity College Dublin highlights how problems relating to a lack of student engagement have been exacerbated by school closures. Students in schools with disadvantaged status are up to three times less likely to engage with formal education, particularly in an online setting. While there is little doubt that this is a pretty dire statistic, the situation is not without hope.
While this was a difficult situation, it was not unsurmountable. Michelle O'Kelly, principal of Mercy Inchicore, a Deis secondary school, quickly put strategies in place to connect with the students through the provision of online counselling, delivery of school lunches and other initiatives.
All of which contributed to nearly 80 percent of Mercy students participating and engaging with the online learning provided. Her guiding principle was “connection before content”.
Consider the designation of “socio-economic disadvantage”. It refers not only to issues relating to lower income, but also those that stem from inequalities of “social and cultural capital”; that is, the skills, knowledge, norms and values that can be used to get ahead in education and in life more generally, and the kinds of social contacts that can open doors.
These are issues that cannot be solved solely by throwing money at them. There are deeper societal and cultural issues at play here for which any solution needs to be nuanced. That is not to say that increased financial support and resourcing would not help; indeed, it has to be a part of any solution. The financial support needs to come in conjunction with strategies to support schools to re-establish the connections with their students in ways that can build social and cultural capital.
The Trinity College Dublin research shows that the ways in which teachers interacted with their students in the online environment had a significant impact on the level of student engagement. In particular, those who offered interaction through meaningful feedback on submitted student work, and through the use of video (both live and recorded) were significantly more likely to report higher levels of student participation with online learning. Due to a range of factors, these relationships were less common in Deis than non-Deis settings.
Also, while over half of the teachers who responded to the survey reported a dramatic reduction in practices that foster collaboration among students, higher levels of such collaborative approaches were positively related to levels of student engagement in Deis schools. Teaching practices that promote expectations, motivation and beliefs were also identified as being relevant for student engagement specifically in the Deis context. No relationship between these teaching approaches and levels of engagement was not found in non-Deis schools.
These findings suggest that more interactive methods of presenting material and engaging with students online, collaboration with peers, and teaching practices that promote the development of students’ self-belief and motivation are particularly important in Deis settings.
These are exactly the kinds of practices that are likely to provide scope for the development of the social and cultural capital required by our young people in areas of socio-economic disadvantage.
So, what can be done to buck the trend? I believe that we need to consider the provision of a model of teaching and learning that is specifically targeted to the needs of students in Deis schools. A stronger focus on supporting the development of relationships that can provide a foundation for students’ belief in themselves and their abilities is necessary in this context.
From the results of the Trinity College Dublin study, this might be achieved through tailoring our pedagogy in Deis schools to have a greater emphasis on the student-teacher and peer-peer interaction. Clearly, this could be viewed as a positive approach across the board, but it was the Deis context in which it emerged as significantly impactful.
In the words of Michelle O’Kelly, “connection before content” is required if we are to encourage participation from students in these areas of socio-economic disadvantage, in order to provide them with the skills, knowledge and relationships that they need to engage with education, and to succeed.
Dr Aibhín Bray is assistant professor in education at Trinity College Dublin’s school of education