OULC Treasurer, Martha Storey, writes about the failings of the Conservative Government to prioritise education during the coronavirus crisis.

From the very beginnings of the Covid-19 crisis, the government seems to have forgotten about education. The lack of discussion about schools in early stages of the Coronavirus crisis has continued set a trend for the rest of lockdown. The lack of detail and planning about schools 

has blossomed to become a key failure on our country’s behalf, leading to a desperate “catch-up” plan involving schools hiring private tutors. Children all over the UK are missing out on a vital time in their education, and predictably, the detrimental effect of lockdown is multiplied for less fortunate schools and children.

The Tech Gap

The logistics of lockdown have demonstrated just how much we rely on technology. Schools are no different, and this last term has seen schools flock to online learning platforms for much of their teaching, in addition to video call classes and work being set by email. However even this poses problems for many children – for starters, only 34% of parents of children aged 5-16 say their child doesn’t have their own laptop, phone, or tablet on which to access online lessons. This means in many households, resources are stretched for children to access online learning. With many parents working from home due to lockdown, this places obvious constraints on when and how much work students can do. Add to this a lack of quiet space to work at home, a reality for many students, and a picture emerges of an environment very difficult to work in.

Students lacking their own devices means there is no guarantee they will be able to attend all or any scheduled lessons, which has led to a huge disparity in teaching standards between schools. Naturally, fee paying schools have good reason to believe that the majority of their students will have ample technology to learn at home, and will be in a stronger financial position to help out students who cannot afford it – so their teachers can plan lessons they know students will attend. The Sutton Trust found that privately educated children are twice as likely to be taught every day than state school students; this face-to-face contact is a key opportunity for teachers to check pupils are motivated, and actually doing the work they have been set. A more recent study by the National Foundation for Educational Research found that four out of ten students are meeting with their teachers less than once a week. The effect that regular contact has on students should not be underestimated, and the lack of it has led a UCL study to find that one in five children do less than an hour a day of work while in lockdown. Throughout various studies, a trend emerges – state education is being left by the wayside, while private schools are going to much greater lengths to keep teaching their children. This is to be expected – private schools must keep in mind their parents are also customers – however the impact it will have on social mobility for children from worse-off schools is not difficult to predict.

Too little, too late

Much of this inequality comes from an inadequate response to the current crisis. Schools shut on the 20th March, already lagging behind the advice to cut down on non-essential contact and travel within the UK. At the start of lockdown, there seemed optimism about children going back to school, which led to a complacency about the standards of at-home teaching and learning. Fast forward three months, and the target date for schools to re-open has been and gone, but most children remain at home. This sloppy response is embarrassing; much of Europe has opened its schools without too much complaint or danger in the number of Coronavirus cases. But beyond the international stage, the current government have fundamentally failed to provide a basic education for the country’s children. Between the pomp and awkwardness of the daily briefings, and the political turmoil of the Cummings affair, education has been swept under the mat, barely mentioned and barely questioned.

Marcus Rashford’s successful campaign to extend Free School Meals throughout the summer holidays is one small achievement, however it is not the job of a footballer to force the government into action. Initially, the government rejected the proposal to extend the Free School Meals scheme, which calls into question the benevolence of their later U-Turn. Perhaps even worse is the fact that the Prime Minister is reported not to have known about Rashford’s (well-publicised) campaign until the government announced its U-turn.

Those on Free School Meals get a £15 food voucher per week, or meals provided by the school or an external provider. However throughout lockdown, there has been much concern about the quality of the meals, often consisting of bread, pasta, and biscuits, which starkly contrasts the Education Secretary, Gavin Williams’s promise of “nutritious” meals. Yet again, the response to at-home learning and living is under-developed.

A way out?

The government’s history of incompetence regarding education makes Johnson’s plan for a “catch up” over summer seem even more exasperating. This past term was supposed to be term that was taught, not a term off. The government’s failure to set guidelines or requirements for the amount of work students are submitting has led to a huge discrepancy in what children are learning. But even ignoring this, there seems an obvious solution to this catch up. The summer holidays are arbitrarily fixed, so it seems to make sense to use this time, not as a catch up holiday, but as some kind of extension of school term. This would ensure that students are learning and being monitored. Instead, the proposed catch-up plan seems vague and will inevitably fall into the same dangers as this term has, leading to another six weeks of many students working less than one hour a day. 

The government’s announcement it will fund a years’ worth of private tutors is a step in the right direction. However it seems to be sending a positive message to an industry flourishing on prioritising those willing to pay for education. A year’s worth of government funding will surely boost the private tutoring sector massively, as well as leading to schools depending on external help. When the funding runs out, schools will have to face the tricky decision of whether to continue employing private tutors at the expense of the school’s budget, or to face another rocky period as students adjust to the lower levels of support. The scheme is a positive step, but it needs to help soften the blow on schools, not increase the turbulence. In the meantime, an issue that needs addressing urgently is the exam provision for the coming academic year, a reduction in curriculum to ease the strain of catching up on students taking exams.

The government’s lax attitude towards education has led to a cumulation of problems that are proving near impossible to fix. For a generation tipped to live through the biggest recession since (at least) the Second World War, it is vital that children are learning the skills necessary for getting through the uncertain times ahead. However it seems that the majority are not, and this will have a significant impact upon social mobility in the coming years.

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