Leader: The education divide

The government's mishandling of education during the pandemic endangers the prospects of a generation of children.

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The Covid-19 pandemic is a kind of X-ray of society: it reveals uncomfortable and sometimes hidden truths. At the outset of the crisis, the UK government’s narrative was one of shared sacrifice and common suffering. As during the austerity period that began in 2010, the message was that “we’re all in this together”. We were not. Similarly, as the disease has progressed it has accelerated pre-existing inequalities. Covid-19 death rates have been twice as high in England’s most deprived areas, while black and minority ethnic people have died in disproportionate numbers. In the UK, as many schools have remained largely closed, the pandemic has exposed the disturbing scale of educational inequality.

In a 2012 speech at Brighton College, the then education secretary Michael Gove noted: “More than almost any [other] developed nation, ours is a country in which your parentage dictates your progress.” As the work of Leon Feinstein, director of evidence at the Children’s Commissioner office, has shown, bright but poor children are overtaken by their less gifted but more fortunate peers at the age of six. The pandemic is magnifying this divide.

A study by University College London (UCL) published on 15 June estimated that two million children in the UK – one in five – had done no schoolwork since the lockdown began or managed less than an hour a day. While 71 per cent of state school pupils have had one, or none, online lessons per day, 31 per cent of private school pupils have had four or more. Almost all private school pupils who formed part of the UCL survey had access to a computer at home, while one in five of those on free school meals had no access. As Robert Halfon, the chair of the education select committee and Conservative MP for Harlow in Essex, has warned, the continuing lockdown threatens “an epidemic of educational poverty”.

The response of the government to this emergency has been characteristically inept. On 9 June, Gavin Williamson, the Education Secretary, confirmed that the government’s target of providing all primary pupils with a month’s classroom time before the summer holidays would be missed. By September, most children will have been absent from school for six months.

As non-essential shops reopen, this situation appears increasingly absurd. Last month, the World Health Organisation’s coronavirus envoy to Europe, Dr David Nabarro, ruled that it was safe for children to return to school: “There will be risks but it’s a case of balancing up the risks. You don’t want children staying at home and missing out on school for a long time.” EU education ministers confirmed, in a recent video conference, that the reopening of schools in 22 European countries had not led to any significant increase in Covid-19 infections among children, parents or staff. But in the UK, which was late to lock down and has suffered Europe’s highest number of excess deaths per capita, ministers have deemed that the risk of reopening schools is too great. This decision only compounds other failures.

Why, for instance, three months after schools closed, have many disadvantaged pupils not received free laptops or tablets? Nearly half of the 230,000 devices promised by Mr Williamson on 19 April have yet to be delivered – and this falls far short of the 700,000 required to meet the needs of poorer children. It took a remarkable and spirited campaign by the Manchester United footballer Marcus Rashford to force the government to U-turn on the provision of free school meal vouchers for pupils during the summer. Faced with the worst forecast recession of any developed country, Boris Johnson has rushed forward plans to reopen the economy. He has gleefully engaged in a culture war over statues. The UK’s children, however, increasingly appear a secondary concern. This is a grotesque waste of human talent that no major economy can afford.

The cost of Covid-19, in lives lost, has already been too high. Should the government fail to address the education crisis with greater urgency, the prospects of a generation of children could be blighted. 

This article appears in the 19 June 2020 issue of the New Statesman, The History Wars

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