Act now to close the education gap — or our economy will pay the cost for years to come
If there were ever any doubt about the full cost of closing schools, the answer is now clear.
It is a vast price — and one that will have to be paid by the nation on both a human and a financial level for many, many years to come.
Alongside the mounting national debt being accrued by the government as it pays for furlough and the rest of the Covid-19 support, there will be a bill for the longer-term loss that comes in the form of missed educational capital.
For the first time, we are getting a sense of how much all those missed classroom hours will cost in terms of the lost earning potential (and therefore tax revenue) of those who underperform as a result of months spent out of school. A new study, commissioned from London Economics by the foundation that I chair, the Sutton Trust, has found that the students currently at secondary school will collectively miss out on an eye-watering £11bn in earnings over the course of their working lives.
The research also estimated the devastating impact on the life chances of those children from poorer homes: the long-term impact on lost earnings is three times higher for those from deprived backgrounds.
The fact is that children from disadvantaged backgrounds have been disproportionately affected by Covid. When schools are shut — as they were for the entire summer term for most children — these students are less likely to have access to the resources needed for proper online learning, less likely to have a quiet place to study, less likely to have parents comfortable with home education, and far less likely to have their learning supplemented by private tutors. Indeed, previous Sutton Trust research found that over a third of parents with children aged 5–16 said their child did not even have access to their own computer, laptop or tablet.
For all these reasons and more, the most disadvantaged children are also less likely to catch up once they have fallen behind.
The cost on an individual level is obvious. But the cost to this country — in GDP and in intellectual capital — of all this missed talent will be felt long after memories of Covid lockdowns and early closing in pubs have faded into a distant memory.
We have an imperative, then, to close that gap as fast as possible. Now that most schools are finally fully open, the race is on to narrow the divide and repair the damage that has already been done.
That requires huge investment in the education of the least well-off children.
For a start, we must demand that ministers substantially increase the pupil premium in the forthcoming Comprehensive Spending Review — that is, additional school funding specifically targeted at disadvantaged students.
But that is not enough. With future lockdowns on the horizon and the growing acceptance that remote working and learning are here to stay at least for the foreseeable future, we must put in place significant investment to ensure that the divide in access to online education is mitigated. Students cannot learn if they do not have access to the necessary technology, including a computer or tablet, as well as a strong internet connection with the right data allowances.
They also need a suitable space in which to study — something that is likely to be difficult for many poor children who live in cramped housing conditions. Schools and the government must work together to create these safe spaces for pupils in need to learn.
There has been one sliver of good news. The Education Endowment Foundation, which I also chair, is preparing to launch the National Tutoring Programme with £76m from the government. This scheme — which was mentioned indirectly by the Prime Minister in his conference speech last week — will enable schools to access heavily subsidised tutoring from an approved list of partners. Tutoring is highly cost effective and is something I have long believed should not just be the preserve of the middle classes. With the educational divide growing ever deeper, it is crucial that this resource is available to those who need it most.
But we cannot afford to be complacent. Rather, our efforts must be relentless. So much of the hard work done over the past decade to close the gap between poor and rich students has been undone by the Covid crisis.
If we fail to help those young people now, whose life chances have been most damaged by the pandemic, they will pay a hideous price. And so will we as a country.
Main image credit: Getty