Leader: The education debacle

By September most children in the UK will have been absent from school for six months, which has magnified educational inequality. 

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Many children have not been to school since the national lockdown began in March. Even when schools reopened elsewhere in the EU, those in the UK remained closed to the majority of pupils. The government’s target of providing all primary pupils with a month’s classroom time before the summer holidays was missed. By September, most children will have been absent from school for six months. (They returned in Scotland this week.)

The consequence of this has been to magnify educational inequality. A recent study by the Education Endowment Foundation estimated that nearly a decade of progress in narrowing the attainment gap between disadvantaged pupils and the rest had been reversed during the pandemic. The cause of this is no mystery: research by University College London (UCL) found that 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.

In Scotland, the educational divide was graphically illustrated by a new system that resulted in almost 25 per cent of all predicted marks being downgraded. Pupils from the most disadvantaged areas were worst affected.

Having been unable to sit exams, students in Scotland were graded according to their school’s historic performance, a crude metric that erased individual agency and perpetuated inequalities. Many pupils were left distraught as they were arbitrarily marked down.

On 11 August, after Nicola Sturgeon had issued a belated apology, the Scottish government rightly announced that all downgraded results would be reversed. But this was a humiliation for John Swinney, the Scottish Education Secretary and a former SNP leader, who insisted only a week earlier that there was “no evidence” that poorer pupils had been penalised by the new system.

In England, education is presided over by Gavin Williamson, an over-promoted party stooge who shows no enthusiasm for his brief. He has little intellectual hinterland and had no prior interest in education or education reform, unlike Michael Gove, one of his predecessors. As our political editor Stephen Bush recently wrote, “before the crisis, policy wonks at the Department for Education despaired that Williamson’s interests extended only to whether a school is in a marginal constituency with a sitting Conservative MP”.

Mr Williamson has inevitably sought to blame the teaching unions for the failure to reopen schools, but he cannot avoid responsibility for his and the government’s shortcomings. Little attempt was made to acquire the additional buildings and staff necessary for socially distanced classrooms. Meanwhile, only half of the 230,000 laptops promised by Mr Williamson on 19 April to disadvantaged children in England had been delivered by June.

The government has now guaranteed that all schools will reopen in September, as they should. But there will be risks, as Professor Neil Ferguson, the Imperial College London mathematical biologist and former Sage adviser, warns in his interview with Jason Cowley. “High schools are large places… and they connect a lot of households together, because society is a social network. All our modelling suggests that this will lead to an increase in transmission and the [reproduction rate] going above R-1.”

To prevent the return of schools provoking a second wave of infections, the government must increase testing capacity and seek to detect asymptomatic cases.

Throughout the crisis, from the late lockdown in March to the reckless dispatch of untested patients from hospitals to care homes, the Johnson government has failed to prevent avoidable risks. Should schools become new vectors of Covid-19 transmission, ministers will not be forgiven by parents – and our children’s education will continue to be blighted.

This article appears in the 14 August 2020 issue of the New Statesman, This house must fall

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