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Blog post Covid-19, education and educational research

School transition, socioeconomic inequalities in wellbeing and the Covid-19 pandemic

Graham Moore, Cardiff University

Children’s education and wellbeing are profoundly influenced by the circumstances into which they are born. Being from a wealthier family is associated with a range of positive outcomes. Poverty is a relative concept. Attending a school where most pupils are well-off is associated with better outcomes. However, for pupils from more disadvantaged backgrounds, attending a school in which most pupils are wealthier than them can have detrimental impacts on wellbeing (Moore et al., 2017).

These inequalities arise from structural forces within society and require structural solutions. However, schools have a role to play in ‘compensating for society’, just a bit (Gorard, 2010). In Wales, pupils attending schools with poorer intakes report more positive relationships with their teachers (Moore et al., 2017). Positive relationships with teachers are associated with a host of wellbeing outcomes. Hence, while we must not expect teachers to fully compensate for society, their work in levelling the playing field likely helps make society a little less unequal than it might otherwise be.

A major developmental milestone in children’s school careers is transition to secondary school. Most look forward to transitioning. A larger secondary school offers a wider range of social connections and lots of new opportunities. However, many worry about loss of relationships with friends and school staff, and challenges forming new ones in their new school.

School transition is also a period in which relative deprivation may be amplified. Several primary schools converge on a larger secondary school. The average wealth of pupils within a secondary school will be approximately equal to the average wealth of those within feeder primary schools. Pupils from the most disadvantaged primary schools in their cluster are therefore likely to transition to a school in which most pupils are better off than them, adopting a relatively low position in their school’s socioeconomic hierarchy.

‘School transition is likely a critical point in the life-course during which socioeconomic inequalities widen, most likely through its impacts on relative deprivation.’

For our recent paper published in the British Educational Research Journal (Moore et al., 2020), we surveyed nearly 40,000 pupils who had recently transitioned to secondary school. Mental wellbeing differed according to which primary school the child attended, and which secondary school they transitioned into. Children attending primary and secondary schools with poorer intakes reported lower wellbeing. However, moving to a secondary school which was more affluent than their primary school was associated with lower mental wellbeing.

School transition is therefore likely a critical point in the life-course during which socioeconomic inequalities widen, most likely through its impacts on relative deprivation.

Our article was published in March 2020, as the Covid-19 pandemic gathered pace in the UK. Days later, school closures were implemented throughout the UK nations, as they were in many countries (Viner et al., 2020).

Covid-19 has brought into clear focus the two themes of our recent article:

  • the role of schools in mitigating inequalities
  • transition as a major milestone in young people’s development.

The medical effects of Covid-19 have been felt the most in more deprived communities. As Professor Devi Sridhar has argued, ‘wealth is the best shielding strategy for this virus’. Likewise, the social and economic effects of Covid-19 will have been most severe for those at more disadvantaged starting positions, with those in more comfortable starting positions most able to ride out this period of turbulence. Periods of school closure can be particularly lonely for young people from poorer backgrounds (Morgan et al., 2019). Many families struggle to feed their children during periods of school closure, while the costs of running a household are driven up. While families struggle to meet their basic needs, children from poorer backgrounds are less likely than their peers to have engaged with online teaching offers, and existing educational inequalities will be amplified by the time young people return to school.

Covid-19 has created a cohort of young people whose primary school careers have been brought to an abrupt end. While England and Wales are indicating different paces of school reopening, both are recognising the importance of supporting a healthy transition, prioritising pupils approaching transition in any reopening that can safely be achieved. Even if pupils do return, their final weeks may be an anxiety-provoking, socially distanced version of their prior school experience. With inequalities rapidly deepening throughout lockdown, pupils from poorer backgrounds will face this turbulent period with the effects of their already disadvantaged starting position amplified.

The Covid-19 crisis has shown that, in times of crisis, people are willing to make sacrifices to ensure that the most vulnerable in our society are protected. Time will tell whether, in normal times, society will direct its collective efforts towards supporting recovery from the pandemic among those most affected by this period of significant trauma. Beyond the pandemic, schools, families and agencies that support the education and wellbeing of children and young people will need to be supported by their governments to support this recovery.


This blog is based on the article ‘Socioeconomic status, mental wellbeing and transition to secondary school: Analysis of the School Health Research Network/Health Behaviour in School‐aged Children survey in Wales’ by Graham F. Moore, Rebecca E. Anthony, Jemma Hawkins, Jordan Van Godwin, Simon Murphy, Gillian Hewitt and G. J. Melendez‐Torres, which is published in the British Education Research Journal on an open-access basis. 


References

Gorard, S. (2010). Education can compensate for society – a bit. British Journal of Educational Studies, 58(1), 47–65.

Moore, G. F., Anthony, R. E., Hawkins, J., Van Godwin, J., Murphy, S., Hewitt, G., & Melendez‐Torres, G. (2020). Socioeconomic status, mental wellbeing and transition to secondary school: Analysis of the School Health Research Network/Health Behaviour in School‐aged Children survey in Wales. British Educational Research Journal. Advance online publication. Retrieved from https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1002/berj.3616

Moore, G. F., Littlecott, H. J., Evans, R., Murphy, S., Hewitt, G., & Fletcher, A. (2017). School composition, school culture and socioeconomic inequalities in young people’s health: Multi‐level analysis of the Health Behaviour in School‐aged Children (HBSC) survey in Wales. British Educational Research Journal, 43(2), 310–329.

Morgan, K., Melendez-Torres, G., Bond, A., Hawkins, J., Hewitt, G., Murphy, S., & Moore, G. (2019). Socio-economic inequalities in adolescent summer holiday experiences, and mental wellbeing on return to school: analysis of the school health research network/health behaviour in school-aged children survey in Wales. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 16(7), 1107.

Viner, R. M., Russell, S. J., Croker, H., Packer, J., Ward, J., Stansfield, C., Mytton, O., Bonell, C., & Booy, R. (2020). School closure and management practices during coronavirus outbreaks including Covid-19: A rapid systematic review. The Lancet Child & Adolescent Health, 4(5), 397–404.