Without a proper education recovery plan, we risk creating a generation of ghost children
We often talk about limiting the damage to the economy – but there can be nothing more important than acting to protect the lives and future prosperity of our young people.
For more than a year now, our young people have had to face up to the huge challenges brought on by Covid. They have been among the worst hit of any during the pandemic and everything possible should be being done to ensure we minimise the long-term impact of the virus and secure their futures.
There has been huge learning and attainment loss, a massive rise in mental health problems, significant safeguarding hazards and, according to a study by the IFS, a lifetime loss of earnings up to £40,000. These four horsemen of the school closure apocalypse are gathering pace as they gallop towards our children.
We must never return to a situation where schools shut their doors to pupils, but even now, as we emerge into a form of normality, too many children are missing out on lessons.
More than 300,000 children are being sent home each week because of the pandemic and there are 93,500 pupils who are missing 50% of school or more, having disappeared from the system. Unless we act urgently, there will be a generation of ghost children, denied a proper chance to climb the educational ladder of opportunity. We must bring their education back to life.
As an immediate priority, pupils must remain at school and not be sent home because of the pandemic. If schools don’t have the capacity to test, we need mobile testing units as soon as possible.
We must never return to a situation where schools shut their doors to pupils
Second, the Department for Education must galvanise local authorities, schools and Ofsted to ensure that the 93,500 ghost children return to school.
Third, the catch-up programme must reach the most disadvantaged pupils. Currently just 44% of children on free school meals are getting access to the National Tutoring Programme.
The plan must be more ambitious than catch-up tuition. Longer school days need to be introduced, for both learning and extra-curricular activities. Mental health counsellors should also be placed in every school.
As the Education Committee recommended in our recent report on disadvantaged White pupils, there also 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. Funding should be micro-targeted at neighbourhood level, rather than just one size fits all.
Education should be widened to ensure an unerring focus on technical education all the way through. The Ebacc should be reformed, with a curriculum that includes both academic subjects and at least one vocational course, like design and technology.
The government could super-charge its technical and skills agenda, inspiring all young people to consider alternatives to the well-trodden academic pathways.
Every day that goes by without a proper plan for Covid recovery, we are damaging the life chances of pupils and risk creating a generation of ghost children. We often talk about limiting the damage to the economy – but there can be nothing more important than acting to protect the lives and future prosperity of our young people.
Robert Halfon is the Conservative MP for Harlow.
Get the inside track on what MPs and Peers are talking about. Sign up to The House's morning email for the latest insight and reaction from Parliamentarians, policy-makers and organisations.