PROFESSOR ALAN SMITHERS: Damage to children’s education caused by the coronavirus schools shutdown could last a generation
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Over the weekend, amid all the sniping and political score settling between the teachers’ unions and the Government over how and when to open schools, a shamefully neglected issue burst into the open.
It was nothing less than the future of this country’s children – something which I regret to say is now hanging by a thread.
The reality is this: if our schools are not swiftly reopened, the inequality gap that scars the British education system will become a chasm. The damage inflicted will be, quite literally, beyond repair for a generation of children.
We already know from a range of studies that the children of affluent parents do much better without formal education than those born into disadvantage or poverty.
The reality is this: if our schools are not swiftly reopened, the inequality gap that scars the British education system will become a chasm. The damage inflicted will be, quite literally, beyond repair for a generation of children (file image)
Today’s shocking study by the Institute for Fiscal Studies, which finds that children from wealthy families will have done the equivalent of a week and half’s more learning hours than poorer children by June 1, is only the most recent in a string of deeply concerning reports.
One survey of primary and secondary heads and governors over the weekend even warned that 700,000 state school pupils are not being given any lockdown lessons.
I shudder to think how far behind these children will be if, as it now seems likely, they don’t return to lessons until September.
After all, aptitude tests of children on their return from the long summer holiday have repeatedly shown how poorer children from less regulated, less educated households often need special coaching to get them back to pre-holiday levels.
It is a truly desperate situation, one made all the more humiliating by the fact that we are now lagging behind Western Europe in seeking to reopen our schools.
Danish primary schools have already been open for a month, and its infection rate continues to fall.
In Germany, Holland, and France, children began to return last week.
And yet for some bizarre reason, Britain is not contemplating even a partial reopening until the beginning of June – and even then only for a few year groups at primary level.
In Germany, Holland, and France, children began to return last week. Pictured is a pre-school in Berlin this week
Of course, I accept that there are major challenges to getting children back in the classroom. It is right that the Government proves it is properly committed to reducing any risk faced by children and teachers, and it is reasonable for the teaching unions to be involved in that process.
But that is no excuse for the National Education Union to withdraw all cooperation in this process and set a spurious list of unreasonable and vague demands – such as for schools to open only when there is ‘confidence that new cases are known and counted promptly’.
Such imprecise ultimatums suggest to me a highly political attempt by a traditionally militant, Left-wing union to create obstacles to thwart the ambitions of a Conservative government.
Indeed, I suspect that many who claim to be fearful of a return to schools are wilfully missing the point.
First, there is no settled scientific consensus on when it would be absolutely safe to return, and you cannot hide from the virus indefinitely. Second, the tracking of the pandemic thus far has shown that children are the least likely to catch or transmit Covid-19.
But even if there is a risk, that still does not justify the debilitating repercussions of keeping children cooped up at home.
For the dreadful consequences of six months away from school are not just educational, but also medical and psychological. One hates to think how many children are currently confined to homes where abuse and domestic violence are widespread, and without any chance to speak to adults outside the home.
It is also alarming to see wide discrepancies in the way different schools have adapted to online teaching methods.
Most private schools, and the better performing state schools, seem broadly to be doing well. But schools in deprived areas are struggling desperately.
I make no apologies for expressing myself in strong terms when it comes to educational equality. I want everyone to have the opportunities I did. I grew up in the East End of London, the son of a Billingsgate market porter and a factory worker, both of whom had left school at 14.
I was lucky to have good, caring teachers and parents committed to getting the best out of me. Thanks to the excellent start they gave me, I have been able to fulfil my ambitions. And, that, ultimately, is the key purpose of a well-run school: it is a great social leveller, a fair environment where every pupil has the chance to develop their talents to the full.
That is why we must let our children back into the classroom to learn, play and thrive. For their sakes, and for the future of our country.
Professor Smithers is director of the Centre for Education and Employment Research at the University of Buckingham.
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