We need a long-term education plan to ensure left-behind pupils aren’t mired in a Covid swamp
Despite the government’s laptop scheme, there are too many students without a proper device and internet connectivity, writes Rob Halfon MP. | PA Images
The decision to close schools will accelerate education social injustices. We need to ensure a level playing field for all students, especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds.
During the first lockdown, despite the individual efforts of many teachers, support staff and schools, over 2 million children did hardly any learning at all.
Not only did the gaps grow between private and state schools in terms of attainment and remote learning provision, but so too did they widen within schools, between disadvantaged students and their better-off peers. Some figures suggest that pupils in certain year groups are 15 to 22 months behind where they ordinarily would be.
As the chief inspector at Ofsted, Amanda Spielman, said, one day of national school closures equate to around 40,000 child years in total. So, given the decision to close schools for (at least) some weeks, we need to ensure a level playing field for all students, especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds.
Teachers and support staff must be made a priority for vaccination
First, teachers and support staff must be made a priority for vaccination, alongside NHS workers. This way, they can be made to feel safe and schools can potentially open sooner.
Second, whilst it is welcome that the Department for Education has issued directives on remote learning, previous experience shows that it varies from school to school. In partnership with academy chains, local authority schools and Ofsted, the government should closely monitor the remote learning taking place and ensure that where it is not working, children are given the resources they need.
Third, in order to achieve this, the catch-up fund must be rocket-boosted and focused on disadvantaged children.
Fourth, in an open letter last year, 1,500 members of the Royal College of Pediatrics (RCoP) set out the risk of increased mental health issues for children at home. The RCoP Officer, Dr Karen Street, has also suggested that eating disorders have gone up fourfold in young people, in part due to social isolation and school closures. Government investment in additional mental health and counselling support in schools, such as the remarkable provision offered online and in schools by Place2Be, will be vital to ensure that pupils and parents have access to advice if and when they need it.
Fifth, with the recently announced changes to exam arrangements this summer, it is possible that there will be a move to centre-assessed grades. In light of evidence which shows that high achieving students from disadvantaged backgrounds are more likely to be under-predicted by around half a grade than their more privileged high achieving counterparts, it is important to ensure fairness in the system. Ideally, an independent assessor could act as a check and balance. Another way forward for GCSEs, could be a hybrid of exams in core subjects, with centre-assessed grades for the rest.
Despite the government’s laptop scheme, there are too many students without a proper device and internet connectivity. For speed, ease and cost-saving, surely headteachers could be given vouchers to go to Argos or Currys and buy simple Chromebooks for their students in need of devices. Mainstream television channels should go further to broadcast educational content so that students without online access can learn.
None of this is going to be easy. Even without coronavirus, we know that disadvantaged pupils are 18 months behind their better-off peers by the time they do their GCSEs. Covid-19 will have accelerated education social injustices.
There will need to be a long-term plan and an educational route map out of this pandemic, focused on addressing attainment and ensuring that those left-behind pupils aren’t mired in a coronavirus swamp, even when the virus has long passed.
Robert Halfon is the Conservative MP for Harlow and chair of the Education Committee.