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School closures are unpalatable for a bigger reason than paltry meals

Newspaper article

I got a slightly plaintive question from a very senior Whitehall official last week: why is there not more apparent concern about the educational damage being done by school closures? Since closures were announced two weeks ago, I have, indeed, seen little in the way of discussion about the undoubtedly huge damage that is being done to children’s education, nor about how eventually to put it right.

Sure, there have been plenty of stories about schools. It’s not hard to write about the incompetence of a government that allows primary schools to open for one day at the start of term before closing them. One watches in disbelief as the Department for Education, with nine months’ warning, appears to have no contingency plan for how to test GCSE and A-level students.

One illustration of the truly astonishing times in which we live has been the repeated complaint that too many children are still going to school. The children of critical workers and those defined as vulnerable apparently are filling some classrooms. There has been plenty of sound and fury over the provision for free school meals and the paltry contents of “hampers” being sent to families entitled to them. The impact on parents’ ability to combine work with home schooling has been well aired. But on the actual effect of school closures on children’s actual education, not so much.

The targets that have been picked out are easy ones. And important. I have twins due to take A-levels this summer, so I bow to no one in my anger at a situation that has left them with no idea how they will be assessed and what this will mean for their entry into university. But on the most important issue, the impact of school closures on children themselves, we seem resigned to sacrificing whatever it takes to bring the virus under control. We certainly are sacrificing a lot. Or at least our children are sacrificing a lot. We know that the effects of previous school closures were big. They will be exacerbated by the present lockdown. Some of that is being felt now in our children’s mental health, especially that of adolescents.

The evidence is increasingly worrying. The effects will be felt for years to come. Pupils also will learn less. After the last lockdown, many schools reported pupils as having lost half a year or more against normal progress. They will know less. They will enter work knowing less. So they will earn less. And we will all be worse off.

Even more worrying is the huge social disparity in the effects. In the last lockdown, pupils at private schools were twice as likely as those at state schools to get regular online teaching. Within the state sector, those from better-off backgrounds got more active school support than the less well-off.

Poorer children worked fewer hours, got less support and had less access to study spaces and online materials. This time around, it looks like better-off families are organising much more private support and tuition, again driving a wedge between them and the rest.

So why the plaintive question from the senior echelons of Whitehall? Why aren’t we hearing more about this?

I suspect that much of the problem lies in a deep malaise in our attitude to the role of education and schooling. It’s evident in the focus on GCSEs and A-levels at the expense of almost everything else. It’s a belief not only that exams are just about the only thing that matter, but also that in the end they are little more than a sorting mechanism. They don’t tell us anything about actual knowledge and skills learnt. Last year’s “results” were the best ever, despite the disruption and the fact that the students, through no fault of their own, almost certainly will have known less than previous cohorts.

I don’t think I saw a single complaint about the possibility that those cohorts of students might have left school knowing less than they should. It was all about measurement of their relative position. I think I can guarantee that the loss of learning experienced over the last year will never be reflected in a fall-off in results relative to pre-pandemic levels. The mysterious operation of adjustment to grade boundaries will see to that. We will never measure any loss in learning, in skills, in readiness for adulthood and the world of work. Grades will continue as they were. Nothing to see here.

There is a reason for this attitude. We put far too much effort into using our school system to sort the wheat from the chaff rather than to instil useful skills and knowledge. I hope against hope that one outcome of the present crisis might be to move away from that, maybe even to get rid of the outdated system of GCSEs at 16 altogether and to broaden the 16-to-18 curriculum.

Thankfully, though, our system doesn’t merely provide a sorting mechanism. While teachers do have to spend an inordinate amount of time preparing their charges for tests, they also instil useful skills and knowledge into their pupils. There is a mountain of evidence to show that lost schooling has real effects on skills and then on earnings. This matters for real.

So right at the top of the agenda for government should be how to make up this educational deficit created by the pandemic and our response to it — especially for the least advantaged children.

That will mean a lot of additional tuition, additional time from teachers and additional money to pay them. And as soon as possible. However much they may appreciate better free school meals, for poorer children by far the most important investment the country can make is in their education.

This article was first published in The Times and is reproduced here with kind permission.

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