Schools' responses to Covid-19: pupil engagement in remote learning

Megan Lucas, Julie Nelson and David Sims

16 June 2020

On 20th March 2020, the British Government ordered schools to close to the majority of pupils. This was a pivotal moment as the majority of pupils transitioned to learning remotely from home and schools had to adapt rapidly to this new way of teaching. With the majority of pupils not expected to return to the classroom until the autumn, remote learning remains at the heart of how schools will need to continue to support pupils’ learning in the coming months.

Given the potential impact of this extended period of remote learning, NFER undertook an independent assessment to see how engaged pupils are, and the factors that might be driving this, as well as how schools are providing remote learning support for pupils. The report is based on findings from a national survey of 1,233 senior leaders and 1,821 teachers in publicly-funded, mainstream primary and secondary schools in England. Responses between 7th and 17th May have been weighted by phase and free school meal (FSM) eligibility to provide a nationally representative picture.

Key Findings

Teachers are in regular contact with, on average, 60 per cent of their pupils.  However, on average, less than half of pupils (42 per cent) returned their last piece of set work. Most teachers (90 per cent) believe that their pupils are doing less or much less work than they would usually expect at this time of year.

Pupil engagement is lower in schools with the highest levels of deprivation: Schools with the highest levels of deprivation (those in the highest free school meal quintile) report 13 percentage point lower levels of pupil engagement than schools in the middle quintile. Teachers in the most deprived schools report 30 per cent of pupils returning their last piece of work, compared to 49 per cent of pupils in the least deprived schools.

Teachers are concerned about the engagement of all their disadvantaged pupils, but are most concerned about low engagement from pupils with limited access to IT and/or those who lack space to study at home. They report that the following proportions of disadvantaged pupils are less engaged in remote learning than their classmates:

  • Pupils with limited access to IT and/or study space (81 per cent)
  • Vulnerable pupils (62 per cent)
  • Pupils with special educational needs and disabilities (58 per cent)
  • Pupils eligible for Pupil Premium funding (52 per cent)
  • Young carers (48 per cent).

Teachers report that, on average, just over half (55 per cent) of their pupils’ parents are engaged with their children’s home learning.  Parental engagement is significantly lower among the parents of secondary than primary pupils (48, compared to 56 per cent). This is likely to be influenced by the age of the pupils. Parents of secondary school pupils are more inclined to think that their children are able to manage their own learning.

Limited pupil access to IT is a significant challenge. We asked senior leaders and teachers what proportion of their pupils have little or no IT access at home. They report that this is a challenge for around one quarter of their pupils (senior leaders report 23 per cent and teachers, 27 percent). The challenge is widespread, with the vast majority of leaders and teachers saying that at least some of their pupils have little or no access to IT at home.

Despite high levels of leadership guidance and teachers’ readiness to provide remote learning support, there is currently a substantial deficit in curriculum coverage across schools.  Almost all senior leaders say they are providing guidance for their staff on remote learning (over 85 per cent on most items in our survey) and the majority of teachers (between 66 and 75 per cent) rate their ability to offer remote learning support to pupils as ‘good or very good’ for most of the aspects included in the survey. Yet 80 per cent of teachers report that all or certain areas of the curriculum are currently getting less attention than usual, across many subject areas, including all core curriculum subjects.

Schools delivering learning content to pupils through online conversations (as part of a range of measures), have higher general pupil engagement levels (five percentage points) and an increased probability of having highly engaged disadvantaged pupils (eight percentage points). Schools using a virtual learning environment (VLE) to inform pupils about learning activities also have an eight percentage point higher general pupil engagement level than schools not using VLEs and a 13 percentage point increase in the probability of having highly engaged disadvantaged pupils.

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Sponsor Details

Nuffield Foundation