Poor government leadership, widespread incompetence from many school leaders, vociferous union campaigners, and tokenistic press coverage have combined to make a mess of our school system. The result is that the seeds of inequality are being sown in most schools, as some of the worst after-effects of the national shutdown begin to show themselves.
In 2016, Nick Gibb, Minister for School Standards, published a report which highlighted the effect that only a few days off school a year can have on children. It follows that the government’s decision to close all schools on 20th of March will have caused irreparable damage to millions of young people. Research so far has begun to show the extent of the developing inequalities.
In May, the Institute for Fiscal Studies reported that only 47 per cent of children from the poorest fifth of households were being offered “active help” from schools in secondary school, compared to 64 per cent of the richest. Some state schools were providing the bare minimum to pupils, and giving the smallest volume of work.
Grammar schools and the private education system will have done more, and their pupils will do better — these schools face greater pressures to do so from parents. Yet the staggering figures, which only got worse as the extent became clearer, do not reflect kindly on the overall collective effort of the system. The government’s disinclination to enforce standards across the country to ensure the most disadvantaged were helped across the lockdown period is mystifying. Many teachers and pupils faced challenging circumstances, and some children were living in crowded households and with little access to sufficient technology — but that is precisely the reason why they are the most at risk. Instead, the government left schools to the whims of headteachers and unions.
The exam results fiasco was appalling, but masks many deeper and much more damaging problems. Disappointing results issued by an algorithm gave the press a perfect opportunity to extol the woes of thousands of young people. Once again, though, it was the most prosperous who were heard — the anguish of that lost place at Cambridge. The media largely ignored the rest. The government then swiftly realised that grade inflation concerns were not not going to be enough to stop a media storm, and left it to universities to offer as many places as they could.
What was the point of all this? Should so much disruption have occurred to combat a virus that poses such little threat to young people?
The damage done by the lockdown to young people can never be fully measured. It will only be evident in the disenchantment and frustration caused by the long-term loss of opportunity. The argument that school closures resulted from the government “following the science” is to misunderstand what science is. There is little chance of the government ever recognising this, or of any inquiry giving a verdict on the decision to close schools.
Post-corona recovery will be hard for all generations, both financially and socially. But the continual derailment of our civil liberties and the desertion of the most disadvantaged at such a time of crisis should be heard about. Coronavirus remains a threat to some of the population, but to schoolchildren, it simply is not — and they are among the hardest hit.