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We must act to stop our children’s life chances being forever harmed by Covid

We must act to stop our children’s life chances being forever harmed by Covid
3 min read

As we emerge into a world changed by Covid, we need an education system that gives everyone, no matter their background or where they are in the country, the chance to climb the ladder of opportunity.

Over the past 18 months of the pandemic, our young people have suffered more than anyone. As we enter the autumn, they must be put at the very front of our recovery from Covid.

School closures have meant that this generation of children has had to face up to staggering gaps in learning and attainment, a huge rise in mental health problems, significant safeguarding hazards and, according to a study by the IFS, a lifetime loss of earnings of up to £40,000.

The Education Committee will be playing its role in holding the new secretary of state and his team to account

The Prime Minister’s former education tsar Sir Kevan Collins, quoting statistics from the DfE, has warned of a long-term cost of £100bn from the pandemic. If we are to avoid destroying the life chances of children in our country, the government must come up with a properly resourced and funded long-term plan for education.

Scrutiny of the government’s catch-up programme is going to be vital, and the Education Committee will be playing its role in holding the new secretary of state and his team to account.

The catch-up programme must reach the most disadvantaged pupils. Currently just 44 per cent of children on free school meals are getting access to the National Tutoring Programme.

School funding is not reaching the parts where it is needed most. There needs to be wholesale reform of the pupil premium grant, so it really does get to the most disadvantaged pupils.

Not only should the catch-up fund be merged into the pupil premium fund, but it should be weighted to account for persistent disadvantage and ring-fenced so it is not used to plug other gaps in school finances. As the Education Committee has recommended, funding should be micro-targeted at neighbourhood level, rather than just “one size fits all”, so it really does reach the young people who face the biggest disadvantages.

But the plan must be more ambitious than just catch-up tuition. Longer school days need to be introduced. Not just for learning but for extracurricular activities, such as sport and well-being. Mental health counsellors should also be placed in every school.

Of course, the gap in attainment between some children and their better off peers existed long before Covid struck. Our education system faces the further challenges of tackling the long-term disparity and underperformance of disadvantaged children, including the often overlooked white working-class pupils, while also ensuring that the curriculum better prepares all young people for the future world of work.

Boosting our country’s skills level is going to be vital in providing opportunities for all people and ensuring our future economic prosperity.

The government’s lifetime skills guarantee is welcome, but we must build on the work that is already been done and be bolder and more imaginative. A community learning centre in every town, introducing lifelong learning accounts and committing to a skills tax credit to encourage businesses to invest, will help provide the skills our country needs.

As we emerge into a world changed by Covid, we need an education system that gives everyone, no matter their background or where they are in the country, the chance to climb the ladder of opportunity.

 

Robert Halfon is the Conservative MP for Harlow and chair of the Education Select Committee.

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