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Government should enlist civil society to help our children catch up on lost learning

Government should enlist civil society to help our children catch up on lost learning

So far the most ‘radical’ solutions floated have been extending the school term and offering evening and weekend tuition, writes Sarah Atkinson MP. | PA Images

Sarah Atkinson

Sarah Atkinson

4 min read

We harnessed every part of civil society in a national effort to protect the NHS. Surely we should think as boldly and act as bravely to protect our children’s future?

It’s widely acknowledged that although older people have been the principal health victims of the pandemic, children and young people are shaping up to be the worst-hit social and economic victims.

We’ve now seen two consecutive academic years disrupted by school closures, with chaos and confusion around public exams. An estimated six months of lost learning, much more for children from lower-income families who were already likely to be behind their more privileged peers academically, will leave a long scar on young people’s attainment that will take years to heal.

It’s not just academic learning that has been lost. Sir Kevan Collins, appointed by the Prime Minister to the daunting task of Education Recovery Commissioner, used his first interview to make clear that he recognises the loss of social and communication skills from disrupted schooling, and the mental health impact of the isolation, uncertainty and fear. Two thirds of the students on our Social Mobility Foundation programme – high ability, low income young people aspiring to go to university and enter professional careers – told us that school closures and exam uncertainty had negatively affected their mental health.

Strategies that direct all efforts to support catch up through schools alone are not going to cut it

Yet the recognition of the scale and breadth of this challenge needs to be matched by the scale and breadth of ambitious solutions – and so far that seems sorely lacking. So far the most ‘radical’ solutions floated have been extending the school term and offering evening and weekend tuition.

Strategies that direct all efforts to support catch up through schools alone are not going to cut it. At best these will only restore the inequalities in attainment that existed before the pandemic. At worst this will mean the gap increases exponentially, as the more affluent children - who have been cushioned from the worst impact of the pandemic on their learning - benefit most from the recovery effort. Schools in disadvantaged communities, where resources are scarcest, attendance and behaviour most challenging, and families least likely to have confidence in the education system to serve them well, will have a mountain to climb.

Government took bold steps, unprecedented in peacetime, to enlist civil society to support and augment the efforts of the NHS to fight the health crisis of the pandemic. We need a similarly bold strategy to secure the capacity, capability and skills of civil society to support children and young people.

Charities and youth organisations have continued to work throughout the pandemic, pivoting our services to cope with the limitations of lockdown and respond to the changing needs of young people. We have provided support both practical – like our campaign to get laptops to disadvantaged young people – and emotional. And we are trusted by the young people we work with, because we have been there for them, day in day out, throughout the pandemic.

Responsible business too has a part to play in supporting communities, sharing resources and providing skilled volunteers; they understand the skills and capability required to succeed in the workplace and it’s in their interests to make sure Generation Covid isn’t further left behind.

So why aren’t we talking more about how to use this infrastructure, this expertise, and this trusted position to tackle this monumental challenge of catch up? Enlisting the capacity of civil society in this huge effort will need coordination and funding – nationally, to direct resources to where they are most needed and share information, and locally, to ensure community organisations are engaged for an effective localised response. But there’s no way to rebuild this damage without significant funding and a long-term plan.

We harnessed every part of civil society in a national effort to protect the NHS. Surely we should think as boldly and act as bravely to protect our children’s future?

 

Sarah Atkinson is the chief executive of the Social Mobility Foundation.

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Read the most recent article written by Sarah Atkinson - There can be no true levelling up if social mobility cold spots endure

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