The cost of the coronavirus pandemic is most often counted in the loss of lives and livelihoods. More difficult to tally is the impact of forgone education. Millions of children have been shut out of regular school, with many having important exams delayed or milestone grades affected. Not all have suffered equally — those with access to the right technology and teachers have been able to enjoy something like an ordinary education experience through home learning. Children in lower income countries have been hit particularly hard, with many seeing an increase in poverty and deprivation. Recent analysis by the World Bank estimated that up to 1.7bn students were out of school last year.
The consequences of this lost learning will ripple through economies over the coming years and store up challenges for the future. No government wants to preside over an increase in social inequality. It is an issue that has particular resonance in the UK where Boris Johnson’s government has made “levelling up” a key part of its post-Brexit agenda. Interim findings of a study into the extent of learning loss of primary-age children found that pupils were, on average, two months behind in both reading and maths compared with 2017. More worryingly, the attainment gap between disadvantaged children and their peers was seven months.
These are issues ministers will need to consider as they decide how to reopen schools. What is clear is that the educational system will need to be more flexible in the short term and adapt to students’ needs. Technology has proven to be critical during the lockdowns and will become even more so in efforts to bridge the digital divide.
The government has already taken steps to provide laptops and subsidised internet access but this has not been enough to meet the actual need. A survey by the Sutton Trust in the first week of the January lockdown found just 10 per cent of teachers in England reported that all of their students had adequate access to a device for remote learning.
The government’s £1.3bn coronavirus catch-up package, while welcome, has come under fire for being poorly targeted. The bulk of the £650m from the fund given directly to schools is being distributed without any reference to disadvantage. The appointment of Sir Kevan Collins, the former head of the Education Endowment Foundation as education recovery commissioner, however, promises a more comprehensive approach. Collins will oversee the government’s plans for a national tutoring programme, offering catch-up tuition for children from poorer families. Private tutoring companies, as well as trainees from the charity Teach First, have been enlisted to help. It makes sense to scale up similar programmes to mobilise younger volunteers to help support learning. Ensuring such efforts are properly targeted will be crucial to their success.
Alongside tutoring, ministers should consider shortening the long summer holidays. There will be inevitable tensions with unions, as well as arguments over working hours and extra stress. One solution would be to bring back recently retired teachers. Extending school into the holidays would also help children from deprived backgrounds — not just academically but also in terms of general wellbeing.
There has been a rise in mental health issues, especially among younger children, with many regressing in basic skills. Covid-19 has imposed a terrible burden on children of all ages. It is in the interests of society as a whole to ensure that the next generation is not left permanently scarred by the damage wrought by the pandemic.