Nearly one in five less advantaged parents say a lack of food made home-learning more difficult for children in the first lockdown, a survey suggests.
Parents of children from families of lower socioeconomic status were more likely to report that aspects of their home environment – such as a lack of technology, space and adequate internet – made it harder for pupils to complete schoolwork from home, according to the University of Sussex study.
It came as pupils in schools and colleges in England – except children of key workers and vulnerable pupils – have been told to learn remotely until mid-February amid the new national lockdown.
Researchers warn that educational inequalities are likely to increase due to school closures as the study suggests that a switch to home learning can disproportionately disrupt the education of the most disadvantaged pupils.
The survey, of 3,409 parents in the UK, suggests that secondary school pupils eligible for free school meals (39%) were more likely to report that a lack of technology – such as laptops and computers – made learning from home more difficult, compared to 19% of pupils who are not eligible for free school meals.
The survey, which ran from May 5 until July 31, also found that 19% of parents of primary school pupils from households that were struggling for income said a lack of food made completing school work from home more difficult, compared to just 3% of families with comfortable levels of income.
Lead researcher Dr Matthew Easterbrook, senior lecturer in psychology at the University of Sussex, said: “This suggests that for some children, when the most basic of needs are not being met, their education can suffer.
“These results show that school closures disproportionately disrupt the education of those who are most economically disadvantaged, suggesting that educational inequalities are likely to rise because of the pandemic.”
He added: “The results show that parents of pupils from disadvantaged families – those who are eligible for free school meals, who have lower levels of education, or who are financially struggling – are much more likely to report that learning from home is challenging.”
The study also found that boys were more likely to do fewer hours of home learning than girls during school closures in the first lockdown.
Gender differences were most evident in secondary pupils, where girls were twice as likely to be very motivated with their home learning than boys.
Report co-author Lewis Doyle, doctoral researcher at the University of Sussex, said: “School closures, while clearly necessary during this public health crisis, risk entrenching inequality.”
A Government spokeswoman said: “We are acutely aware of the additional challenges faced by disadvantaged children during this crisis and have put significant support in place to help resolve this.
“We have purchased over a million laptops and tablets for the pupils who need it most, created a £1 billion Covid catch up fund to make up for lost time in education and provided families with billions of welfare support, including through the £170 million Covid Winter Grant Scheme.”
Education Secretary Gavin Williamson said last week that children who do not have access to technology are seen as vulnerable and can attend school in-person during the new national lockdown.
Government guidance says vulnerable children may include “pupils who may have difficulty engaging with remote education at home” due to a lack of devices or quiet space to study.
But campaigners are threatening legal action against the Government if it fails to step up its efforts to ensure all children can access remote education.
On Wednesday last week, Mr Williamson told MPs that three-quarters-of-a-million laptops and tablets will have been delivered by the end of this week to help pupils access online learning.
A national voucher scheme will be in place so all eligible children can access free school meals, he said.