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The lost generation left behind by schools shutdown

A woman walks past a social distance sign which is displayed outside a shut down primary school in Newcastle-under-Lyme - Credit: Getty Images

FIONA MILLAR on the devastating long term consequences of keeping schools shut.

If only it were simple to calculate the impact of Covid on our young people. If we could say definitively that in five years’ time the gap in outcomes between the best and worst off children would be x, or in ten years’ time social mobility would have declined by y. Or that the cost to the state in terms of unemployment, low productivity, poor mental health and the criminal justice system would be £z…….

A negative impact in all these areas will undoubtedly come to pass, but is hard to quantify, compared to stark current death rates and hospital admissions, which is probably why we are now in situation when we have to rely on Tory MPs like Esther McVey, never previously known to have shown much interest in the nation’s schooling, to point out that our children appear to have been forgotten in this pandemic.

That isn’t strictly true as education, or rather the lack of it, has been continuously in the news since last spring but to what end? Schools are still closed for a second time; the digital divide continues and more worryingly there appears to have been virtually no planning for a second wave of the virus since the first lockdown in March.

Where are the converted, otherwise empty, buildings to which children could be decanted, the armies of appropriately vetted volunteers to man the testing centres, the laptops and internet connection for every child who has to work from home, adequate extra funds to cover extra sanitation measures and one-to-one tuition?

It sometimes seems that most of the cabinet actually don’t have a clue about what life in the state education system is really like. That could be because so many of them were educated in elite public schools, or because they don’t use the state sector for their own children. And let’s not forget that socio economic backgrounds and extra resources in the private sector have ensured that their children have enjoyed live-streamed lessons into comfortable kitchens and bedrooms since the start of the pandemic.

So, let me educate them a bit, based on my experience as a parent and governor in three inner city state schools with high levels of deprivation over the last 30 years. The first and most important point is that children from deprived backgrounds start to fall behind before they even start school. Don’t just take that from me. Listen to the standout hero of this particular hour, footballer Marcus Rashford. “Growing up as a kid,” he told the BBC. “I felt like I started 50 metres behind everyone else in a 100-metre race.”

But Rashford’s determined, aspirational and caring mother probably ensured he wasn’t as far behind as the children who start the early years with limited language acquisition, some barely even toilet trained. You may remember that Michael Gove, now in charge of Brexit ‘planning’ and involved in pandemic ‘management’, made his name promising to do battle with the “soft bigotry of low expectations” practiced by the sort of educationalists he dismissed as “the blob” after a 1950s sci-fi film in which a gelatinous mass destroys the world.

But a decade after St Michael got to work and before the pandemic, disadvantaged 4–5-year-olds in England were on average around four months behind their better off peers. The gap on entry to primary school was starting to increase and the Education Policy Institute found that it would take more than 500 years to close the pre-pandemic disadvantage gap at GCSE based on that rate of progress. You may think this is just water under the bridge. But it couldn’t be more relevant to the pandemic. For children who start and end this far behind in normal times, any learning loss of the sort we are seeing now can be catastrophic.

Even before the current lockdown, Covid meant that in some of the already most disadvantaged parts of the country school attendance was falling to under 80%. The Education Endowment Foundation, which researches strategies for closing gaps, estimates that last year’s school closures could widen the gap by anything from 10% to 75%. There is also evidence that axing exams in favour of school assessed grades disadvantages pupils from certain class and ethnic backgrounds due to lack of experience amongst many teachers and unconscious bias.

It is probably too soon to say what the effect of the second school shutdown will be since it isn’t over yet, though schools will have got better at online teaching. But this isn’t just about learning, this is about social and emotional development and safety. Let me tell you two real life stories that made me hang my head in shame for our country.

The first was of a child who had failed to make any contact with a school I know well in the first lockdown. One of our many heroic teachers and school leaders decided to go to his home to see what was going on. The family had moved, as is often the case in mobile populations, so lived a considerable distance away in a small flat. When the teacher got there, he discovered that the family hadn’t been out for weeks, there was one mobile phone being shared by a family of four children and the mother had turned it off so her offspring would stop fighting over it.

Another example is of a teacher who told me that even in live lessons interaction is limited because of the need to keep cameras off to protect the young people in more disadvantaged homes from feelings of shame and embarrassment compared to their better off peers.

Even before the Covid-19 pandemic began, there were nearly 2.2m children in England living in households affected by domestic abuse, parental drug and alcohol dependency and severe mental health issues. Following the last lockdown there was an increase in serious incident notifications of 27%, yet the number of referrals overall fell, implying a hidden wave of abuse may be taking place without schools and health services being able flag it up.

It isn’t good enough for the PM to airily brush aside the request for more certainty about school reopening at this critical juncture. Children need to be back in school and teachers need to be able to plan. None of us want to be able to say I told you so, but the fall out of a second lengthy period of school closures will be felt for many years to come.

Finally, the lesson that is staring us all in the face is not just the failure to deal with the pandemic, but the fact that we still have a staggeringly unfair education system which a crisis like this can only exacerbate. I often think of my visit to Eton College, of which three members of the current cabinet are alumni (Rishi Sunak went to Winchester for a bit of diversity) and in particular the warm, well stocked library with its classical music and warm drinks machines so the students can learn in maximum comfort.

Many school children today don’t even have a local library anymore, let alone a space at home. There is much more work to be done than simply putting right the damage that is being done now, but I am sure I am not alone in thinking the country’s current leadership is neither motivated nor competent to do it.

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