The events over the last year have not only had a deep and disastrous effect on the lives of disadvantaged young people but have also thrown a new light on the disturbing disparities that already existed.
We know that the loss of learning during lockdown disproportionately affects children from disadvantaged groups. The digital divide, with too many students having no access to online learning, was just one reason that, despite the huge efforts of many teachers and support staff, more than two million children did hardly any learning during the first school shutdown.
The result was not just a widening of attainment between private and state schools, but a burgeoning chasm between disadvantaged students and their better-off peers. Some figures suggest that pupils in certain year groups are now 15 to 22 months behind where they ordinarily would be.
An epidemic of educational poverty, mental health, safeguarding hazards, a digital divide and child food insecurity has also been precipitated by the pandemic. We know that the coronavirus has accelerated the gap between left-behind pupils and their better-off peers.
Some urgent first steps are needed.
- Prioritise teachers and support staff for vaccination so that we can get schools open sooner rather than later.
- Monitor remote provision during partial school closures, to eliminate a lottery in quality and quantity and ensure children have a level-playing field in which they can keep learning.
- Rocket-boost catch-up funding and target it to the disadvantaged children who need it most. A review is needed of the £2.5bn pupil premium to see how it can be spent better on left-behind children.
- Prioritise mental health with financial investment and learning from the outstanding work done by organisations like Place2Be. There should be a mental health practitioner in every school, which parents, pupils and staff should have access to – especially during Covid.
- Build-in processes to exam assessments this year to ensure disadvantaged pupils get a fair grade, drawing on independent expertise to moderate results. Independent assessors should be used to provide a check and balance for each teacher-assessed grade.
- We need a child food security programme. The hundreds of millions of pounds provided for free school meals is welcome. But this is a short-term solution, not a long-term one. We need to look at the root causes of child food hunger and address them through early intervention and family hubs, as well as building on the £220m Holiday Activities and Food programme announced by the Government.
Covid-19 has exposed inequalities that were already lurking in the system. There will need to be a long-term plan and an educational route map out of this pandemic, focused on addressing attainment and ensuring that those left-behind pupils aren’t mired in a coronavirus swamp, even when the virus has long passed.
Without a coordinated approach to tackle educational disadvantages, the left-behind will be prevented from climbing the education ladder of opportunity. That is why the unerring focus of the House of Commons Education Committee will be to have a relentless focus on addressing social injustice in education, on standards, on skills and support for the profession.