Young Scots tell how ‘overwhelming workloads’ and ‘isolating online learning’ are widening the attainment gap

Scottish Children’s Charity, A Place in Childhood (APiC), co-founded by I-SPHERE’s Dr Jenny Wood, this week announced the first recommendations arising from a research project led and facilitated by young teams from cities, towns and villages across Scotland. Echoing the EEF’s findings regarding the impacts of school closures on the attainment gap, their priorities focus on small changes to remote schooling which would make a big difference to national outcomes on attainment, health and wellbeing.   The report and recommendations were featured in the Scotsman on Sunday and you can read more here. 

Seeking to address the absence of children and young people’s meaningful participation in the Covid-19 crisis response, APiC convened three virtual workshops with them over the last fortnight in May. The aim was to give young Scots opportunity to discuss and agree the big changes and challenges they face due to Covid-19, and how they might be addressed.

There were 25 participants across project teams from Aberdeen, Edinburgh, Glasgow and Rural Stirlingshire, with a Rural Falkirk team joining the third workshop. The teams include between 4-6 boys and girls, aged 10-16 years, and were recruited with help from Leith Community Crops in Pots, the Children’s Parliament, and local primary and secondary schools in Aberdeen and Denny.

Despite very different places and backgrounds, there was strong consensus over the first two workshops on 5 big changes, and the associated challenges. The third workshop focused on those challenges where they believed small improvements could make a big difference. Remote schooling was the top priority for all, and the discussion gave rise to 5 key recommendations:  

1. Manage our workload – it’s too much! All are receiving too much work which is leading to feelings of being overwhelmed and fed up with learning. They felt teachers were giving them more work than usual, and seem to have limited awareness of cumulative workload between different subjects. They agreed that better communication between different teachers around timetabling and managing workload could make a huge difference. Work and deadlines must also take into consideration the varied technological challenges and additional time and stress this involves, and importance of maintaining their free-time and weekends. 

“It feels like we’re stuck in an endless cycle of work and we’re never done. No weekend.” Young Consultant

2. Enable us to collaborate with our classmates. Education has become isolating and demotivating, and they are missing their classmates and the ongoing peer support they provide. They felt that workgroup collaboration via video-conferencing was entirely achievable across subjects, for example, for group projects or upfront discussion of new subjects. If authorities weren’t able to provide video-conferencing solutions, then the young people felt they must approve their setting up their own informal video / social media groups on the basis of the importance of collaboration and peer support for their learning motivation and wellbeing.

We need more team-based activities over zoom or teams just like this project” Young Consultant

3. Help us communicate directly with our teachers. Gaining help from teachers via email was regarded as unnecessarily unclear, onerous and slow. Leaving questions on group boards was seen as embarrassing. This was a deterrent to seeking help for everyone, and particularly for the young people in most need of support. The whole approach, particularly in the absence of peer support, meant that when pupils get stuck, they often had no way of progressing, which was stressful and demotivating. Simple solutions proposed included being able to leave private voice or video messages for teachers, or being able to book private one-to-one chats. Also requested was quicker feedback on work, and upfront introductions to new subjects by the teacher, where a whole class might have opportunity to ask questions about the work or instructions.

“You used to be able to ask teachers in your classrooms, now you have to email them and wait” Young Consultant

“We could learn about something first and then we can do work about it instead of doing it all at once” Young Consultant

4. Give us more outdoor and offline learning. Given that learning, socialising and leisure during lockdown were all largely happening online, young people reported feeling exhausted by incessant screen time. They were also struggling with distractions of other people or opportunities at home. There was a very strong consensus that this situation provides a golden opportunity to commit to outdoor learning now and going forwards, and that applying mind to this now could ease transition. Physical education, geography, biology, history and art are subjects they highlighted as ideal for blending online collaboration with individual place-based or outdoor activities which respect Covid-19 guidelines. They identified how using more paper jotters and text books might enable reading and writing to take place offline or outdoors, thereby reducing screen time. They also recognised that adjustments to ways of learning and infrastructure could make more outdoor classes viable.

“We now have a real opportunity to integrate the outdoors into our learning” Young Consultant

5. Work together to standardise and support approaches. The young people spoke about a big variation in the levels and quality of services they were receiving, and felt authorities need to learn from pupils, teachers, and parents about what does and does not work. Some spoke about having to use many different platforms and the wish to have all of their work located in one place. Many felt there was too much reliance on watching educational videos, which added further screen time, and thought that a video conference with the teacher and classmates would be superior. Pupils disadvantaged by not having a home computer bear even greater challenges, with some having no choice but to attend school on their phones. Accessing and purchasing items like paper become the burden of families, many of whom had limited access to resources before the crisis and are most likely to be feeling the negative impacts on their current means of the Covid-19 control measures.

The young people were clear that these 5 recommendations, and the challenges that underlie them, are cumulative. Together, they are putting the young people off school, and are creating or exacerbating divides between classmates which will be difficult to broach. These are causing significant demotivation and stress for all, but the burden is falling most squarely on groups who have been the focus of Scottish Government’s attention in closing the attainment gap. 

“Some people doing lots of work. Others none at all. This will impact their learning long term – especially in exams next year” Young Consultant

“All of the negative factors discussed can contribute to a sense of being overwhelmed” Young Consultant

APiC will provide a full project report in the coming weeks.