Prof Colin Diamond – How can we enable children from disadvantaged backgrounds achieve their full potential?

Many children are being significantly affected by the impact of Covid-19 – on their schooling, their education and their health.

I have worked in Birmingham since 2014 for three organisations: the Department for Education, Birmingham City Council and the University of Birmingham since 2018. I feel like an adopted Brummie and have always appreciated the warm welcome.

I’m privileged to have an outward facing role at the School of Education. This enables me to engage with school leaders and governors in the city every week, to keep in touch with what’s happening and also take stock of the national picture through lots of research projects. They include advising a major study on the epidemiology of Covid-19 in schools across England with the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.

Here are some thoughts on the impact of Covid-19 on our children and young people.

  1. Covid has shone a light on longstanding inequalities in society.

Birmingham is a deeply unequal city. Going on 2018 data it is the sixth most deprived local authority in England.

  • 50% of the children live in the most deprived decile of the English population
  • Huge contrasts: Ladywood 3rd highest level of poverty in the UK
  • Sutton Coldfield  15th lowest

I would never want to paint a negative portrait and we must always celebrate Birmingham’s super diversity and its status as the youngest city in England. It is both a PASSIONATE AND COMPASSIONATE CITY with some of the very best schools, colleges and universities in the country.

So the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic was always going to amplify the existing inequalities for children and young people:

  • Access to learning has been extremely variable with a worrying growth in elective home education (nationally too)
  • The ‘digital divide’ has been emphasised (we see 4 or 5 school age siblings in one family working from 1 tablet)
  • Accessing learning when your first home language isn’t English
  • Accessing health and social care services when you are afraid to leave the house
  • Loss of parents’ jobs in low income households where there is no safety margin and that leads to hungry children
  • Fear and anxiety at home: the loss of any kind of social opportunities from the very young children through to the teenagers

For young people there’s a double jeopardy here as without very careful handling of the situation, their exam results in GCSE, A level and BTEC could really suffer this summer. To date, the government’s handling of education during the pandemic hasn’t inspired much confidence. 73% of teachers surveyed by Teacher Tapp recently felt that DfE had done a ‘very bad job’ so far.

  1. What’s my assessment?

Having said this, I think it’s really important that we don’t portray things too negatively. I have been looking at children’s experiences in situations where they have become refugees, experienced war and trauma, particularly through the work of the International Rescue Committee.

Children are remarkably resilient. Most of them will overcome what’s happened since early 2020 without suffering chronic mental health problems. They will catch up. Typically, pre-pandemic,, young people from disadvantaged backgrounds made progress later – a few years behind their peers from more affluent homes. Some will, of course, need specialist support but I am worried about messages that are doom laden from senior commentators. And many school leaders tell me that their pupils and students are craving normality and a return to school – not really wanting to be quizzed in depth about ‘how they are feeling. Accessing normal behaviours once more are therapeutic for most of us.

Yes, there will be some damage and delay in getting Birmingham children all up to national standards and better but that has been the case throughout this century.

  1. Let’s plan positively for the future

Finally, to quote Birmingham’s most influential educationalist, Professor Sir Tim Brighouse, we need some unwarranted optimism right now. We must think long and hard about the learning from the pandemic and what needs to change in how society embraces the children and young people in Birmingham. Are we teaching them the subjects that really matter? Where is the place for learning about sustainability and compassion for our beautiful planet? They should be centre stage in my opinion.

That goes for the schools of course but is a much wider social tableau about creating (or rather re-creating as we did during the Every Child Matters era) that team around the child and its family. Every day I am seeing minor miracles out there that are making the difference. People from so many organisations reaching out to families to keep them going, whether that’s a food parcel or a tablet being delivered to the front door. Voluntary organisations, our religious communities, the big agencies are all working together in ways that convey hope and love for the future.

Professor Colin Diamond CBE
Professor of Education Leadership
University of Birmingham

Twitter @anfieldexile


About the author:
Prof Colin Diamond, Professor of Educational Leadership University of Birmingham

Colin Diamond has worked in the field of educational leadership for many years in England. He has been a Head of Faculty, Associate Headteacher, Local Education Authority Adviser, Assistant Director and Director of Education/Children’s Services.

He led improvements in two local authorities taking them from government intervention to strong performance. He has also worked for the Department for Education in England as Head of Education Advisers for the Academies and Free Schools Programme.

He was Deputy Education Commissioner in Birmingham and he was also an OfSTED inspector. He was an associate lecturer at three universities before taking the chair of education leadership at University of Birmingham.


Prof Colin Diamond, Professor of Educational Leadership University of Birmingham, chaired The Lunar Society event on Thursday, January 28, 2021, part of the Society’s Futures series, and gave his view on the impact on education of the pandemic – and the deep-rooted societal issues that produce inequalities in education in Birmingham and beyond