School closures have put an entire generation at a huge disadvantage

Published on 25 May 2020

"School closures don’t merely put progress on educational equity at risk", Paul Johnson writes, "they put at risk years of slow progress towards gender equality in the labour market."

Younger generations “will pay a heavy price for our response to this virus”. So say Anna Vignoles and Simon Burgess, perhaps Britain’s foremost authorities on the economics of education. They are right, and we should be worried.

They are talking about the effects of school closures on children’s education and about the effects of the deepest recession in history on the job and earnings prospects of those young people entering the labour market this year. These effects will be damaging, long-lasting and felt much more acutely by those who are already disadvantaged. As the two professors put it: “The crisis will lay bare the already stark inequalities in educational attainment that are a feature of the UK.”

Pupils have already missed seven weeks of school attendance, but they haven’t missed it equally. The Sutton Trust reports that pupils at independent schools are twice as likely to attend online lessons on a daily basis as are pupils at state schools.

I have an interest here. I have twin sons in the lower sixth, one at a state sixth-form college and one at a state secondary school. One provides some online learning, one does not. Neither provides a fraction of what children at local private schools are getting. As a parent, this is hard to accept. More worryingly, my colleagues at the Institute for Fiscal Studies have shown that this isn’t simply a state/private divide. State schools serving better-off pupils are much more likely to be offering active help with learning than are those serving more disadvantaged pupils.

Since schools closed, total children from better-off families have been spending 30 per cent more time on home learning than have poorer children. They have access to more resources, such as private tutoring or chats with teachers. They have a better home set-up for distance learning. Their parents report feeling more able to support them. The gap in learning time between better and worse-off children is already equivalent to at least seven days and will likely reach fifteen days if schools don’t return until September. This is more than enough to have measurable impacts on outcomes and to undo many years of tortuously slow progress towards better educational attainment by the most disadvantaged.

Of course, we have to take account of the risks of reopening schools. But we shouldn’t delude ourselves into believing that the costs of not doing so are anything other than colossal. And that’s even before taking account of the impact on parents’ — and in particular mothers’ — ability to carry on working while schools are closed. School closures don’t merely put progress on educational equity at risk; they put at risk years of slow progress towards gender equality in the labour market.

For young people themselves entering the labour market this year, either after finishing school or finishing university, the picture is also bleak. We know from studying previous recessions that the effects on those leaving school or university don’t last for only a year or two, they can be persistent. This time around, vacancies are at an all-time low and it is sectors such as hospitality, where the young are disproportionately likely to work, that have been shut down. Moreover, while such jobs are often poorly paid, they are increasingly important as stepping-stones to better-paid work.

University graduates will be hit hard, but it is always the case that the least well-qualified are hit hardest in times like these. We may hear less about them, but more young people do not go to university than do go. It is those at the bottom of the pile who are least well-equipped to deal with the difficulties presented by a deep recession.

Then there are the much-neglected vocational and work-based learning programmes, such as apprenticeships. If this period has taught us anything, it is surely that it’s those with real practical skills that we can’t do without. But apprentices are also suffering. Research by the Sutton Trust suggests that fewer than 40 per cent of apprenticeships are continuing as normal. More than a third have been furloughed and one in twelve has been made redundant. A quarter of employers reported that a learning provider had closed. Perhaps most worryingly, a third said that they were likely to hire fewer new apprentices than usual this year, or none at all.

Perhaps I should declare more of an interest at this point. Not only do I have two sons in lower sixth, I also have one just finishing university and one coming to the end of an apprenticeship. But it is not (only) for their sakes that I would suggest that the problems being created for children and young people may need urgent, and possibly expensive, attention once the worst of the immediate health crisis is past.

Professors Vignoles and Burgess suggest that younger years should be prioritised, given the importance of early years in child development. They propose that additional support on return to school will be required to address learning loss. Additional resources may need to be found to provide small-group tuition, particularly for disadvantaged pupils. The further education and higher education sectors need to communicate strongly that they are open for business and must encourage disadvantaged students to continue their studies. Government needs to support firms to keep providing apprenticeships. We may need more investment in post-compulsory schooling, particularly for the most disadvantaged students, ensuring that they acquire useful and productive skills rather than being left to their own devices in the most unwelcoming labour market in generations.

The professors’ conclusion that “investing in the human capital of the young should be central to any economic recovery plan” is hard to dispute. We have imposed huge costs on a generation that is not itself much affected by this virus. We need to repay them.

This article originally appeared in The Times and is used here with kind permission.