ANDREW ADONIS: Closing schools for coronavirus was a mistake

Schools are closed due to the coronavirus pandemic. Picture: Tim Goode/PA

Schools are closed due to the coronavirus pandemic. Picture: Tim Goode/PA - Credit: PA

Reopening schools during lockdown should be a priority as education is vital for social mobility, ANDREW ADONIS argues.

When Tony Blair famously said his three priorities were education, education and education, the then Tory prime minister John Major quipped that he had the same priorities but not necessarily in the same order.

Blair was true to his word. Education spending doubled over his decade in office. Spending on universities and science trebled.

I'm obviously biased as his then schools minister, but the public grasped that England's public education system in the 1990s was falling dangerously behind the rest of Europe and East Asia. And that inadequate public education was reinforcing the English class system and entrenching poverty.

Our mantra was 'investment and reform', since public spending alone was not the answer. Reform proved highly controversial. The introduction of academy schools to replace failing inner-city comprehensives got me burned in effigy by leaders of the National Union of Teachers, whose successors might try to repeat the exercise after my criticism of them for not engaging with the government on the gradual reopening of schools.

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The rows over academies were chicken feed compared to controversy about the introduction of £3,000-a-year tuition fees for university education. I tried to break the ice at an election rally in Cambridge shortly afterwards with a weak joke: 'On my tombstone will be engraved the words 'tuition fees''. Whereupon someone shouted from the back: 'Not soon enough.' But with tuition fees now at £9,250 a year, those were the halcyon days.

The Covid-19 crisis is exposing England's often class-segregated school system in its worst light. The private schools and the foremost state grammar and academy schools are offering a full online education. This does not entirely correlate with higher social classes, thanks to the success of academies in deprived areas. But it appears to be the case that primary and secondary schools doing the least online are almost entirely located in deprived areas.

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It is critical that we get schools open safely for at least some children, including the most vulnerable, as soon as viable. Every European country is doing so. The further we fall behind, the greater our catch-up challenge will be and the more the poorest families will suffer. Covid-19 will be followed by a great education crisis unless we get the school system functioning soon.

It was a key mistake to formally close the nation's 24,000 state schools on March 24. They should have been kept open. About a third of pupils should have continued to attend in person with social distancing, while the others were expected to continue with a full learning programme online. IT equipment should have been given free to all pupils without it. All this should still happen: more than half of the summer term is still to come.

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Universities are also under the cosh. They too are suffering from class-related challenges, as students work from home and are not able to access physical libraries and facilities while still paying full fees.

Unlike state schools, which are wholly funded by the state and therefore cannot go bust, universities are now largely funded by international students, many from China, who may never come back in the same numbers as before.

Universities will need to be bailed out. But it can't, long-term, be on the basis of international students who no longer exist. So even if immediate deficits are funded by the government, there will inevitably be mass redundancies among university staff unless the recruitment of students from China is fully resumed.

Meanwhile, unless our schools return soon, the next generation of school-leavers and graduates will be poorly qualified to compete against ever-better qualified cohorts of Chinese students, wherever the latter study for degrees.

My interview with Kevin Rudd, the former Australian prime minister, raises vital issues about our future relations with the new emperor of the east, Xi Jinping. For all the intrinsic importance of education, the three priorities of any prime minister may soon have to be China, China and China, although not necessarily in that order.

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