The evidence that educational inequality has grown sharply in England during the six months since schools closed in March may not be surprising. But it is dismaying. The gap in the results and post-school prospects of children from different socioeconomic backgrounds is a longstanding problem in the UK – not just for those whose opportunities are limited by weak qualifications, but for the society they belong to. Education is important in all sorts of ways, and is linked to health as well as income. New research suggesting that the gulf between disadvantaged and better-off pupils at English state schools has widened by 46% in a year should set alarm bells ringing.
The fiasco surrounding this summer’s exam results makes the situation all the more worrying. It took intense public pressure to force a U-turn that ministers should have made as soon as it was clear that the algorithm used to calculate grades could accentuate existing links between attainment and wealth. Urgent and careful consideration must now be given to next year’s exams, in Scotland and Northern Ireland as well as England and Wales, to avoid a situation where pupils from poorer backgrounds are penalised. Since they are much more likely to have lost out on lessons than richer pupils, particularly those at private schools that delivered more remote teaching, the risk of exacerbating unfairness continues. Adjustments to the timetable and content of exams would be a sensible mitigation.
The creation of a £1bn budget for catch-up tutoring was a positive sign that the government recognises the problem. But there is no quick fix for the learning loss caused by the pandemic. While evidence so far is based on teacher assessments of how much pupils missed between March and July, other factors have yet to be taken into consideration. These include the likelihood of further interruptions, which is greater in deprived households and neighbourhoods, where more people live in crowded conditions and suffer from ill health. Then there are issues connected with the return to school, with children who are already vulnerable to exclusion expected to find the adjustment to new rules and systems hardest, and concerns that 20,000 children with special educational needs have been “forgotten”. In London, the expected end of free public transport for children will create a further barrier to education for thousands of families who lack the money for fares.
None of this is to say that the past six months have been a disaster for everyone. For some children who find school difficult, the break was a relief, while sons and daughters of key workers were in school (in smaller classes) throughout. But despite the initial sense of national emergency and feeling of togetherness that the pandemic fostered, it is beyond dispute that it has had a polarising effect. When people are forced out of the public sphere and on to their private resources, then the differences in those resources – be they physical space, relationships or access to education and technology – are amplified.
Self-evidently, this situation is worst for those who have least. For future graduates whose education will continue to age 21 or later, three months is a smaller proportion (and loss) than for pupils who leave at 18. Rising unemployment and a dysfunctional housing market mean that missed school is only one among many serious difficulties faced by millions of low-income households.
Schools policy cannot on its own solve the many problems associated with poverty, particularly when the latter is increasing. But targeted support for pupils who are recognised to have missed out, combined with a renewed focus on high-quality teaching, should help to minimise the harm caused to “generation Covid”. The boost in teacher recruitment that always accompanies a recession should at least ensure that ministers, headteachers, unions and everyone else involved in the recovery effort will have colleagues to work with. Their work is of the utmost importance.
Read the original article at The Guardian