For many, perhaps most, students, remote learning is not working. No matter how many resources are uploaded, no matter how many all-singing, all-dancing videos are made, no matter how clever the website and how much the investment made by schools: the interaction, the questioning, the nuance, the subtlety of the classroom cannot be replaced.
As a teacher, it is much easier not to have to get up in the morning and drive to school. It is much easier to not have to deal with difficult behaviour. It is much easier not to have to listen to excuses for lateness, or incomplete work, or poor effort. It is much easier to make PowerPoints with narration and to upload them to YouTube. It is much easier to log into the Show My Homework website and to read students’ submissions and to type comments on their work. It is much easier to set tests that mark themselves automatically.
It is all much easier, and, for many students, it is not working.
Technology plays a part. Some students simply do not have laptops or desktops with good broadband connections. Some are trying to follow lessons on their phones. I have planned lessons that can be watched on YouTube, completed on any paper that is available, and submitted as Jpeg images which are uploaded to the website using the phones’ cameras.
But technology is incidental, what is called “social capital” is far more significant. As less affluent households have fewer material resources, so they will often be lacking in social capital. It is more than a century since, in 1916, LJ Hanifan defined social capital:
I do not refer to real estate, or to personal property or to cold cash, but rather to that in life which tends to make these tangible substances count for most in the daily lives of people, namely, goodwill, fellowship, mutual sympathy and social intercourse among a group of individuals and families who make up a social unit
More recently, it has been defined in this way:
Social capital is the effective functioning of social groups through interpersonal relationships, a shared sense of identity, a shared understanding, shared norms, shared values, trust, cooperation, and reciprocity
The implications for school learning are that those who belong to social groups with an extensive vocabulary, a high level of formal learning, a developed understanding and knowledge of the world, will be more readily be able to draw upon that capital when it comes to attempting school lessons outside of the context of a school. Students who do not have access to such capital may struggle when it comes to the formal lessons they are attempting because they do have the interpersonal relationships with those who might provide elucidation, guidance and reflection.
When the children’s commissioner for England suggested that the gap was widening, she might have added that social capital has a multiplier effect and that the longer the lockdown continues, the greater the gulf that social capital will create.
It has been called the Matthew Effect by some writers, drawing on the words of Jesus in Saint Matthew Chapter 13, “For whoever has, to him will be given, and he will be in abundance.” It seems likely to affect many lives.