For most of us, for now, the future is on pause, but it is a credit to school leaders, teachers and support staff in every part of the country that they have been able to transform schools in a matter of days. Now pupils are enabled to work from home and schools still provide support to the most vulnerable and the children of key workers.
But as we question what the future may look like after this crisis, one thing has become clear: if we are to provide our children with a passport to their future, we cannot return to the status quo.
The inequalities between children have been laid bare in this crisis. Many have been left without food due to administrative problems with the temporary voucher scheme designed to replace free school meals, demonstrating that without that meal the most vulnerable children in our society go hungry.
Around one million children are without adequate access to the internet, and many more are only able to access with a mobile phone, making remote learning impossible or inadequate for huge numbers. There is little in the way of direct support available, something which could counter this gap or substitute for the presence of teachers. When our schools return, the gap between the most disadvantaged students and their peers will have grown. The government’s initiative to provide devices to some Year 10 students and some vulnerable children simply does not go far enough.
It is essential that every child has equal access to education, regardless of their background. First and foremost, this should mean additional support for the most disadvantaged children for the duration of the lockdown. We need immediate improvements to social security and the creation of a new Digital Access Fund to give every child the opportunities they deserve.
Supporting children during this period is an essential first step, but inevitably, we are also beginning to look to the steps we will take as the lockdown gradually eases. Schools will need to reopen, but that should not happen unless it is unequivocally safe to do so. It would be deeply irresponsible to see the reopening of schools as an easy first action, carried out without serious regard for the consequences.
Parents and those who work in schools have gone to extraordinary lengths in recent weeks. They deserve a clear plan from the Government, properly communicated and agreed with teaching unions, to outline when and how schools will eventually reopen. The Government must stop sending mixed messages with leaks to the newspapers saying one thing and the Secretary of State saying something else. A few days’ notice will not be good enough.
A clear plan means protecting both children, staff and their families from coronavirus when schools return, including ensuring that schools are able to access appropriate personal protective equipment alongside mass community coronavirus testing.
But looking at reopening is not enough. We must examine the challenges faced by schools, the importance of support for vulnerable children and the deep inequality of opportunity across the country revealed by the crisis. We cannot return to life as it was before.
We can’t just applaud the work of schools in supporting the nation’s children; we must start giving them the proper resources they need to do it, after a decade of deep cuts to school budgets and local council support services. We need to start listening to and valuing all those who work in schools. They know what is best for children’s education. We need to return schools to their rightful role as providing both education and wrap around services to all those who need it.
This means addressing structural problems in education which affect children’s education: the pressure placed on teachers and their workload; the unsustainably low teacher retention rate; the form of exams and assessments at all school stages and the way achievement at a school level is measured. A starting point will be replacing Ofsted with a new body with responsibility for inspections, designed to drive school improvement and scrapping the planned new baseline assessment test for children starting school.
We must look again at our education system to ensure that access to a good education is truly a right for every single child, whatever their circumstances. Education is the passport to their future, but it is also one of our most vital tools to rebuild a fair and inclusive society.
Rebecca Long-Bailey is Labour’s shadow education secretary