This isn’t a surprise – teachers tell us that any interruption to education can take its toll, and children from poorer families are more likely to suffer. Even during school holidays, limited access to appropriate childcare and stimulating activities, and food insecurity can lead to a decline in health, well-being and the academic progress made in previous months. Research consistently shows that children from less well-off backgrounds are most affected by these factors.
So when, on 20 March 2020, UK schools closed their gates to all but a few children, parents and teachers across the country held their breath.
Two months into lockdown, the IFS has shown that primary and secondary students are learning at home for around five hours a day. In better-off households, children are spending 30% more time on school work than their poorer classmates.
Government has taken steps to help with the huge challenge that children and their parents are now facing. To help parents in their new home-schooling role, they have promoted a series of 180 online lessons per week. At the end of April, Education secretary, Gavin Williamson promised to help access education online, and offered devices and 4G routers to disadvantaged pupils who will be taking their GCSEs next year. While this help is no doubt welcome, it does highlight the fact that pupils from poorer families are at risk of falling further behind as schools remain closed.
The Brilliant Club is an award-winning university access charity that works with schools and universities across the UK. Its chief executive, Anne-Marie Canning, believes access to technology is already a barrier to the progress of poorer pupils. Ms Canning recently told the BBC: "Digital exclusion takes many forms, ranging from a lack of devices to the affordability of internet contracts," and being able to keep up with classes should not be reliant on “broadband status”, she added.
As government tries to ease us out of lockdown, schools have found themselves at the centre of a debate raging around a choice between danger and disadvantage. This follows Boris Johnson's announcement that, from 1 June primary schools will open for reception, year one and year six classes, in addition to nurseries and other early year providers. Years 10 and 12, those due to take public exams next year will have some time in the classroom, but will not yet return on a full-time basis.
To say the cat is well and truly among the pigeons is an understatement. On Sunday, the cabinet office minister, Michael Gove, said: “The clear scientific and clinical advice is that it is safe to have schools reopen, accompanied with social distancing.” And yet, the official guidance concludes that keeping a constant two-metre distance between people in schools is impossible. Instead they focus on regular hand-washing, surface cleaning and excluding anyone with coronavirus symptoms. Unions have been split in their response to the plans – some see it as reckless, others as premature, and a non-starter without robust track and trace processes. Cross-bench MPs are clamouring to see the scientific basis for this strategy and some local authorities have simply advised their local schools that it is not safe to reopen yet.
In the meantime, the IFS’s study highlights the dangers of demography. At one end of the spectrum, children with higher-income parents have access to more resources for home learning, and are able to engage with online classes, video and text chatting. On the other, they found that more than half (58%) of primary school students from the least well-off families don’t have access to their own study space. Oasis Charitable Trust founder, Steve Chalke has called the resistance to reopening schools “rather middle class”. And when he weighs up the long-term social cost to children “stuck in a council block, with no fresh air, no exercise and little or no nutritious food” against returning to the classroom, there’s no comparison. Chalke has been clear that Oasis will reopen its primary schools on 1 June, but added that neither pupils nor teachers would be forced to attend.
The issue of disadvantage and the effect it has on educational progress and attainment has been around for much longer than Covid-19, and will certainly still be with us on the other side. Jules White, headteacher at Tanbridge House school said: “Schools have been looking after the most disadvantaged families with scant support for years,” and the IFS’s results are powerful “but completely unsurprising”. While children are prevented from attending school and from taking advantage of its structure and stimulus, they are bound to suffer, and some far more than others. At the moment we’re seeing a struggle to balance the public health benefits of lockdown with the economic and educational costs of school closures (which in turn will have consequences for health). Of course, these factors represent our children and those working with them on the front line.
More than anything, we need to rise above the name calling and point scoring and remember that children all over the country desperately need to get back into school – and that many of their teachers want to be there too.