It was meant to be over by now, but the pandemic does not appear to be following the script.
Covid has swept through schools once again in the past few weeks, with teachers going off sick again and desks emptying fast. The new extra-infectious variant of Omicron comes at just the wrong time for children who have already missed out on so much over the past two years and in England now face Sats, GCSEs or A-levels this spring. A report from the Commons education select committee, whose Tory chair, Robert Halfon, has doggedly worried away at this issue for two years, recently concluded that school closures in England had been “nothing short of a national disaster for children and young people”, with pupils in the most deprived areas up to eight months behind in some subjects and the government’s “catch-up” national tutoring programme (NTP) failing to deliver in precisely the places that need it most.
Schools have reported tutoring companies cancelling lessons at the last minute, or sending tutors with no knowledge of the subject they’re supposed to be teaching; frustrated headteachers told the committee they could have spent the money better themselves.
All this makes getting children back even to where they were pre-Covid a challenge, never mind taking great leaps forward. Yet this week the education secretary, Nadhim Zahawi, published an ambitious white paper confirming new higher targets in reading, writing and maths for primary school children in England plus improved GCSE results by 2030. He is right to be ambitious for children. But vague talk of a “parent pledge” that children who are falling behind will be helped – what does anyone think teachers were trying to do before now, exactly? – falls some way short of convincingly explaining how precisely they’re intending to work miracles: new figures released this week show that by autumn 2021 the average primary pupil was still 1.9 months behind in maths (although that’s a distinct improvement on the 2.8 months behind they were in summer). At a time when waiting lists for children’s mental health services are going through the roof (which means emotional and behavioural difficulties spilling over in class) and a cost of living crisis is plunging more families into desperate circumstances, something just doesn’t add up.
Zahawi is far more surefooted than his predecessor, Gavin Williamson, with a brisk track record of delivering as vaccines minister. He’s likely to get more of a grip on the catch-up programme and has hinted at giving schools more freedom to make arrangements that work for them. But he’s having to try to do it on the cheap, which rules out any genuinely big ideas. Kevan Collins, the government’s chosen catch-up “tsar”, resigned last year after his proposals were rejected as too expensive, and the more limited programme that ministers eventually announced was tendered out last year to a surprisingly low bid from the Dutch private company Randstad, with predictably poor results (the select committee heard that the Randstad programme was a “bureaucratic nightmare” and that its online tuition hub was “dysfunctional”).
Conjuring up trained teachers from thin air to help children who have missed out on months of proper lessons was never going to be easy. But as things stand the scenario everyone in education feared – that lockdown would unravel years of hard work to close the gap between rich and poor children – now risks becoming reality, with dismal consequences for children’s life chances. Home schooling was tough on everyone, but middle-class parents were better positioned to cope with it and could afford private help later if things did go awry. For their less fortunate classmates, the NTP should have been a lifeline but, as of last spring, had failed to reach over a third of its target schools in the north-east of England, and in Yorkshire and Humber, the two regions where children’s learning loss is deepest. So much for levelling up.
The children’s commissioner for England, Rachel de Souza, a former headteacher, has meanwhile been warning of the number of “ghost children” who have seemingly disappeared from the radar during the pandemic. In the summer of 2020, with debate raging over whether schools could safely open in the autumn, I spoke to the head of an inner-city secondary whose big worry was that after months at home some teenagers would just drop out and never return to education. At the other end of the age spectrum, fewer families are taking up the offer of free nursery places for two-year-olds from disadvantaged backgrounds, places that help prepare them for school; children’s centres report families who have barely seen a professional face-to-face since their toddlers were born and have simply lost the habit of engaging with officialdom.
Keeping schools open to all through the first lockdown, with neither vaccine nor immunity to an unknown new virus, sadly wasn’t a viable prospect: even if Boris Johnson had tried it, schools would simply have had to shut anyway as teachers went down sick. By limiting the spread of infection, school closures probably saved the lives of parents and grandparents. But now we should be focusing all our energies on making up for what children have missed. They don’t have to become a “lost generation”, for ever scarred. But it is infuriating that so many chances to turn things around have already been wasted: if we don’t act decisively then we will be living with the social, academic and economic consequences of having let these young people down for years to come.