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  • sharonbell0

Re-imagining Disadvantage - reflecting on the past year

Updated: Mar 5, 2021

Covid-19 has disrupted everything that we knew to be normal – the roll-out of the vaccine programme at an incredible speed gives us hope that there is light at the end of the tunnel.

Every sector has faced it’s unique challenges. I work for Services For Education, which is a charity that works within arts, and the broader education sphere. The innovation, adaptability and resilience in my team has been incredible and that has been replicated by education professionals across the country.

When you hear the term ‘disadvantaged children’ what picture forms in your mind?

The challenges of the pandemic, and the extended periods of homeschooling have placed a spotlight on children who may be described as ‘disadvantaged’.

We will all have heard the term ‘free school meals’ and footballer Marcus Rashford is rightly credited for raising the issues arising from food poverty during lockdown, exacerbated by school closures.

The shortage of technology and difficulties of access to broadband can make home-schooling so incredibly challenging for many families. The Sutton Trust which advocates for social mobility from birth through to employment published their report, Learning in Lockdown in Jan 2021, in which 19% of parents reported not having enough access to devices – that figure rose to 35% for lowest income families. Of course, technology is only one part of the problem – in 2020, The National Housing Federation reported that 1.6 million children lived in what the government would define as an overcrowded home.

Availability of technology and access to free school meals are some of the more measurable indicators of disadvantage … but disadvantage can be emotional as well as financial and can apply to children in all walks of life.

In a time of national lockdown, many of the issues will be hidden from public view. Parents who are navigating a myriad of issues related to Covid, struggling with their own mental health; challenges such as bereavement, unemployment or not having English as a first language – and still trying to provide that supportive environment for a child, yet not able to do so in the way they would want.

All children have been disadvantaged by Covid in some way, and one solution doesn’t fit all.

Music is a powerful tool

Here at Services For Education we are passionate about all children having the opportunity to learn music, and the broader benefits are well documented – such as improving learning skills, concentration, and memory development. We have recently published a report on our Soundtots project, which makes a powerful case for early intervention - charitable trust funding enabled colleagues to work with 300 3-5 year olds living in disadvantaged wards of Birmingham prior to lockdown. At the end of the 20-week project, the number of children who were behind the expected level of understanding of words and instructions, had decreased from 83% to 32%. There is potential for significant impact, if funding can be secured for roll-out more widely across the City.

Where children have engaged in virtual music lessons during lockdown, we have seen above average progression – and our virtual ensembles are playing an important role in supporting their mental health and well- being. Whilst this is great, we are acutely aware of the learning gap this creates where children have been unable to engage. A challenge for the weeks and months ahead, is ensuring that we don’t have a generation of young people who haven’t been inspired to learn about music and the arts.

Healthy Lifestyles

As I said above, one size doesn’t fit all. Another of our projects, Health for Life is approaching its 10-year anniversary, working with primary and nursery schools across Birmingham, encouraging children and their families to develop healthy, active lifestyles. In over 175 settings we have seen it provide a positive framework for learning as children learn about healthy eating, growing, cooking and are encouraged in physical activity. Often in an inner-city setting, children face potential disadvantage from lack of opportunity – but this project encourages them to try new things, as they learn about where food comes from, try their hand at growing and cooking it – as well as encouraging their family do to the same. The informal setting for learning has also proven to have a positive impact on mental health and wellbeing – perhaps giving us an insight into needing to consider a range of settings as we help our children process the impacts of the pandemic.

What is “disadvantage?”

We will rightly hear much in the coming weeks and months regarding the impact of Covid-19 on our children – and how we can mitigate that impact as lockdown eases back. As we do that, let’s keep at the forefront of our thinking, a reimagining of our definition of disadvantage, so we don’t ignore the issues arising from hidden disadvantage during these strange times. While we consider solutions, it’s essential we look for innovative funding solutions, enabling us to make a significant difference to this generation. With the expertise across Services For Education, we are well placed to deliver a range of solutions which can provide meaningful support in the weeks and months to come. We have a proven track record at being creative and adaptable, able to bespoke our offer to the setting and the needs of the children. School leaders will have their own budget challenges to contend with, and yet like us, want the very best for the children in their care. While we consider solutions, it’s essential we look for innovative funding routes, enabling us to make a significant difference to this generation and limit the impact of the pandemic on their education. If you share our passion for supporting the children of Birmingham, their families and their teachers, then I would love to hear from you.


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