Throughout this week, close to 9 million pupils will return to school, after 18 months of constant disruption caused by the pandemic. What have we learnt? That school is best in person, obviously – but also that the pandemic has also amplified the scale of inequalities across the national educational system.
The UK government has just launched its “back to school” campaign, revealing new measures to try and avoid further closures. One is the highly anticipated return of extracurricular activities such as drama, sports and music, all essential to our children’s development.
To enable this return to relative normality, the government is encouraging students to get vaccinated, but pupils aged 12 to 15 are not currently being offered the vaccine. To date, only teenagers above the age of 16 are eligible. This does feel a bit confusing and as vaccines are the key to keeping children at school we must ensure that the rollout is swift.
It is one thing giving schools the green light to reopen, but another to make them safe. Given the current situation, there are reasons to be cautious. Experts are now expecting a fourth wave this autumn, and our children cannot afford to miss another year of school.
This summer, more than 40 per cent of A-level candidates received As and A*s against 25 per cent in 2019. This sharp inflation is a symptom of a sacrificed generation. Despite being a quick fix to acknowledge the difficulties faced by pupils in the last year, in the long term, our children will suffer from this devaluation. When hard work is not properly recognised, students’ motivation to perform diminishes, when pupils are not made aware of their weaknesses, it becomes trickier to help them identity development areas. Earlier this week, the exam regulator even suggested the introduction of a new A** grade to make up for the current inflation. One can not help being reminded of basket case economies adding zeros to their currencies.
Another lesson we have learnt is of course that remote learning cannot replace school. One of the reasons is that remote learning exacerbates inequality. In the most deprived areas of the country, only 25 per cent of teachers had access to a platform to give online classes, against 60 per cent in independent schools. Sir Peter Lampl from the Sutton Trust, a social mobility charity, said in a recent press release that “pupils from poorer homes face a double disadvantage. They have insufficient resources at home to support their learning and they are less likely to be able to access online classes.”
Our system simply can not bear these inequalities if our goal is a strong and meritocratic future economy.
The stark gap between privileged and unprivileged children remains worrying when assessing higher education – with less than 26 per cent of pupils eligible for free meals attending university. More disadvantaged students are also less likely to apply to top universities. With so many students consistently not attending school for months, one should expect a widening of this gap. If we value the principle of equality of opportunity, we have to keep the nation’s children at school from now on.
At the Nick Maughan Foundation, we try to help as many young people as possible through scholarships, educational aid, financing and running local and national sporting initiatives such as BoxWise.UK. Many other organisations are stepping up, the Royal Opera House now offers school matinee performances of opera and ballet for just under £8. For schools outside London, the scheme can support the cost of travelling to Covent Garden. The accessibility of this scheme is a truly wonderful example to be followed by both public and private cultural institutions nationally. Education should never be confined to the walls of the classroom, so we need to maximise the opportunities for young people to participate in diverse social enterprises throughout the UK, not just in London.
The first way out of this draining year is for everyone to feel safe again. The government has announced biweekly testing at schools to avoid major disruptions during this new school year. While testing is essential as the health service cannot yet provide vaccination for all, this testing scheme should require the deployment of professional medical teams in every school. To avoid further educational inequalities, teachers in deprived areas should be able to focus all of their energy on teaching. Instead, state schools’ staff are likely to be asked to perform medical duties. Here again, chances are that we will witness major differences between deprived and privileged areas, state and independent schools.
From access to universities to the availability of online teaching, the pandemic has created an urgent need to reduce inequalities across the educational system. The reopening of British schools is an opportunity for us to act on these issues.