Covid-19 Curriculum Watch 3: Learning access, resources, and assessment guidance during the pandemic

Covid-19 Curriculum Watch 3: Learning access, resources, and assessment guidance during the pandemic

Timeline from January to September 2020 and the impact of Covid-19 on schools being closed across the four UK nations and the approaches to teaching and learning during that time

06 August 2020

This is the third blog in our series which catalogues the educational responses across the four nations of the UK to the current pandemic. Our first blog covered decisions related to the closure and reopening of schools, while our second blog focused on specific changes to examinations and formal assessments.

In this blog we look at the arrangements that have been put in place to ensure students have access to education and learning resources following the large-scale closure of schools for most learners. We also look at guidance given on assessment and testing to support the start of the new school year across the nations of the UK. 

We see all the different parts of the UK taking steps to facilitate access to digital resources for students, teachers, and parents/carers – with all experiencing some implementation challenges, but we also see some national nuances in this learning support policy. There are also some variations across the nations in the assessment guidance around using tests to inform learning at the start of the new school year.

Access to remote learning

All four home nations have focused efforts on opening up access to remote learning. In England the Department for Education (DfE) announced a scheme to bring digital devices (laptops or tablets) and internet access to disadvantaged, ‘digitally excluded’ students (targeted at disadvantaged Year 10 students, learners who are care givers, and all learners with a social worker). Additional financial support is available from the 16 to 19 Bursary Fund of the Education and Skills Funding Agency or from some Third Sector organisations such as the £2 million pledge from the Academies Enterprise Trust for buying laptops for students in receipt of free school meals. There have been concerns about delays to the rolling out of the government’s laptop and connectivity scheme, and by late July, 13 councils reported they were assigned fewer laptops and tablets than they requested. In addition, headteachers and charity organisations have consistently argued for the scheme to be extended to include other year groups.

In Scotland there has been a centralised approach to ensuring that technology and remote learning resources are made available to teachers, students, and parents/carers. This has involved an investment of £30 million to provide laptops to disadvantaged children and young people, with this sum including £25 million that is focused on the supply of digital devices to around 70,000 digitally excluded students and the funding of around 40,000 new internet connections. Like the other nations, the Scottish Government considered digital learning as fundamental to mitigating the negative impacts of the lockdown on educational equity. Unlike some of the other nations, this digital provision was not targeted at any particular learner age group, although, in common with England, there has been some criticism around the speed of this roll out. The role of Local Authorities in remote learning access support is also now hardwired through legislation which requires each education authority to support in-home learning for students who normally attend Local Authority schools. 

A key focus for the Welsh Government has also been around the principle of equity, with action centred on supporting access for digitally excluded learners. £3 million was made available to overcome digital exclusion, with efforts made to repurpose school devices for learners and to supply students with 4G MiFi connectivity. Replacement devices would also be provided to schools from a different funding programme. Stakeholder and regional voices have also called for a continued commitment to non-digital learning solutions to help to counter educational inequality. Teacher Unions and Regional School Improvement Consortia have argued for alternative or complementary learning activities to be set for students who cannot access or complete work online. An equity issue that is of particular importance in Wales relates to home schooling and language. 63% of children attending Welsh-medium schools are from homes where no Welsh is spoken, which means that parents/carers cannot understand Welsh-medium learning resources. This has required additional government guidance.

Similar to other nations, Northern Ireland has created a laptop scheme to support disadvantaged students. Priority was given to students currently in year groups 11, 13, 6 and 3 and those in certain category groups (for example, learners eligible for free school meals, having special educational needs, or being in a newcomer target group [including Asylum Seeker, Refugee, and Roma students]). The first phase of the scheme involved schools distributing laptops and tablets already available. The Northern Ireland Executive also bought an additional 3000 laptops to lend to students to fill any shortfalls experienced by schools. This scheme was only introduced in May, with some students not receiving their device until June. A free wi-fi scheme for disadvantaged pupils has also been announced, and it is anticipated that this will be available from the middle of August and will run for eight months. 

Learning resource provision

Local Authorities in England have played an important role in providing learning resources (for example, see Cambridgeshire County Council’s summer learning packs in English and Maths or Norfolk County Council’s resources for Early Years to Post-16 learners). Across the UK, teachers have recorded lessons that are freely available on a new online curriculum hub called the Oak National Academy. Centrally, the DfE released a list of free online resources in early April, with a focus on subject-specific resources such as for English, Maths, Science and PE. The DfE resources also include links with guidance on maintaining students’ wellbeing. Finally, the DfE has also published and updated guidelines on safeguarding students during remote teaching. This guidance includes advice for schools and parents/carers around ensuring safe online education.

The Scottish Government, through the Education Scotland agency, has developed a bank of learning materials that are available on a national basis. These resources include learning activities, weekly newsletters and learning activities for parents/carers, and exemplars of good practice for educators. All teachers, students, and parents/carers in Scotland can also access Glow Connect, which is a National Intranet managed by Education Scotland that allows the users to access learning community communication tools. Augmenting the Scottish Government’s guidance on privacy and safeguarding issues, Glow Connect includes information on child protection and online security. Although there has been a growth in Glow Connect usage over the period of the pandemic, teachers report differential levels of engagement, with some schools achieving participation levels of 80-90%, and others 50% or less. 

In Wales a centralised approach was taken to learning material provision. The Welsh government produced guidance for schools, parents/carers and learners and worked with Universities, Regional Consortia, Colleges, Careers Wales and other organisations to create learning resources. The resources include support for preparation for the next stage of education, subject based resources, and general skills. Teachers and students have access to Hwb, which is the national digital platform for learning and teaching in Wales. Hwb has a range of apps, software, digital tools and resources for use in the classroom and beyond, and many of these resources are bilingual. Additionally, the Children’s Commissioner for Wales provides an information hub for schools, learners and families. There are multiple resources for rights/citizenship education for Primary School teachers including lesson plans which are largely bilingual. The Welsh Government has also published guidance on safeguarding. Recognising that welfare is of paramount importance, the guidance includes sections on digital work and livestreaming.

In addition to resources made available through central government in Northern Ireland, the Council for the Curriculum, Examinations & Assessment has also provided a range of learning resources. For example, they have provided home learning resources for each Key Stage as well as links to external resources. The Northern Ireland Minister of Education has also funded a Bookstart programme in partnership with BookTrust aimed at younger children. It is expected that 24,000 families across Northern Ireland will receive book packs by the end of 2020. The Northern Ireland Department of Education has also created a new ‘Safer Schools’ app which provides safeguarding information, advice and guidance. It also explains safety settings, privacy settings and reporting/blocking functions for social media, apps, games and other platforms, which they hope will assist young people in working safely online.

Assessment arrangements for the return to school

There have been significant changes to proposed assessment arrangements to support students’ transitions into the new school year in England. Government guidelines indicate statutory primary assessments – such as key stage 1 and 2 assessments – are not required in 2020 and are expected to take place according to the usual timetables in summer 2021. Plans to introduce a baseline assessment for Reception children have also been pushed back to September 2021 in favour of vital ‘recovery work’. Government advice to grammar schools in England is to postpone 11-plus exams until later in the year, advising instead that students are likely to benefit from as much time back in education as possible before being assessed. 

In Scotland there has been little guidance on the assessments that are expected as students transition into their new school year, although the legal responsibility for Local Authorities to support learner transitions is established. Government guidance on preparing for the return to schools suggests that formal tests may not be the most appropriate approach to assessment at this stage, recommending instead that teachers draw together evidence of learning to begin to determine students’ achievements. This is reiterated in some Local Authority guidance that states that analysis of learning gaps should not be based on standardised tests, in line with the ‘nurture principles’ of the Scottish Curriculum for Excellence.

The Welsh Government has given some guidance for schools about assessment in the autumn term. The focus of this guidance is on ensuring that assessment informs learning arrangements that both challenge and support learners at an appropriate level. The guidance favours a variety of assessment approaches, rather than encouraging an exclusive focus on the use of tests.

Although the transfer tests in Northern Ireland are still scheduled to go ahead, there are increasing questions from parents/carers and schools as to whether the tests should go ahead, be cancelled, or be disregarded. Several schools in Northern Ireland have already stated that they will not be using the transfer test results to decide admissions in 2021 because it will not be a fair reflection of student ability. Others argue that perhaps these events are showing that the transfer test is not an equal opportunity in the first place. Post-primary placement tests (transfer tests) are still taking place in November and December, although several schools have said that they will not be using them for entry decisions. 

Shared concerns

With all the UK nations moving to a greater reliance on remote learning and digital resources during the pandemic, some common concerns have also emerged. Although remote access has been central to ensuring that students have ongoing access to safe education, and this has been crucial, there are also emerging worries that digital learning is not the same as the forms of learning that it is replacing.

Despite digital educational initiatives there continue to be differences in access, engagement, and attainment – and these raise some equity concerns. Teachers in England have expressed concern that the attainment gap has expanded to a ‘chasm’ during the coronavirus epidemic. Recent reports from The LLAKES Centre and the University of Glasgow highlight decreases in the amount of time that students are engaging in education during lockdown, with this decrease being more pronounced for students who are in receipt of free school meals. 

There are also concerns that digital educational initiatives have negatively impacted on students’ social interaction. Some teachers fear that this could lead to this cohort of students becoming ‘a lost generation’, interacting less with the world around them, and contributing to serious student wellbeing issues

As schools prepare for the physical return of their students in the next month or so these wellbeing issues will no doubt affect decisions being taken around curriculum planning for the Autumn Term. In our next blog we will look more carefully at how curriculum decisions are being influenced by the pandemic.

If you are interested in contacting our team around any of the issues discussed in this blog, or if you want to suggest topics for our future blogs, please get in touch with us at

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