Sir Peter Lampl is founder and Chairman of the Sutton Trust and Chairman of the Education Endowment Foundation.
Pubs, pubs, pubs. If you were to believe most of the ministerial and media rhetoric during these last few weeks, you would conclude that getting them open was the biggest priority to revive this country post-Coronavirus.
While no doubt there are many out there thirsty for a pint, this is a huge distraction. The fact is that the single best way to both kickstart the economy, and to fix the damage that has been done to our social fabric, is to guarantee that schools open in full this September.
There can be no ifs and buts. The damage that was done by the (quite understandable) decision to close down our education system is so wide-ranging it is almost inconceivable. The cost to both GDP and the life prospects of our children will take an age to recover.
And so we must be absolutely clear that, as ministerial focus pivots from the immediate emergency, the threat to the NHS and saving many thousands of lives, on to the economic crisis opening up before us, the education system must share equal top billing.
The damage done to educational outcomes and to social mobility is frightening. The Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) – which I chair – has estimated that some ten years of progress closing the attainment gap between our most deprived young people and their wealthier classmates has been reversed by closing schools for three months.
The efforts of most heads and teachers has been heroic, but the provision of online teaching has been patchy, and the ability of school staff to reach those children most in need of their help has been stretched at best. A University College London study found that 20 per cent of pupils (two million) still do less than one hour of schoolwork a day at home, or none at all, while many private school students are doing six hours.
Research from the Sutton Trust, which I also chair, showed that of the work that is received back from pupils, 50 per cent of teachers in independent schools report they’re receiving more than three quarters of it. This compares with only eight per cent in the least advantaged state schools.
And during this crisis, there have been too many people playing politics. The Government has said one thing, heads another, unions another, councils another. Parents have been left in the middle baffled – while their kids lose out to a frankly terrifying degree. Messages have been mixed and this has undermined confidence in the system.
The Department for Education, the Treasury and Downing Street must speak with one voice on this. The economic revival they so desperately seek goes hand in hand with nurseries, primaries, secondaries, colleges and universities reopening to the greatest degree possible.
We can’t get parents back to work without their kids being looked after in primary or nursery schools. And we can’t hope to achieve growth unless schools and colleges and universities are producing people ready to work. In the longer term, the cost of the damage to the country’s wider prospects of the education system misfiring will be in the billions.
The building blocks are starting to be put in place. The announcement last week of £1 billion to spend on tutoring, and on catch up support throughout the summer and into next year, is really welcome. Both the EEF and the Sutton Trust are excited to be working with the Government to make sure this money has the greatest possible impact.
And the announcement of a change in social distancing from two metres to one metre – although again, framed to allow pub, restaurants and hotels to open – creates a great opportunity for schools. No longer will heads be restricted to 15 kids in a classroom. At one metre social distancing – and recognising that, especially in primary schools, the risks are very low indeed – we can, and must, move towards having all or almost all children safely back into schools.
No-one – principals, lecturers, heads, teachers, students, parents – can be left in any doubt that the Government will be laser-like in its focus on this. The promise of support, funding, and clear, timely advice to all parties must be forthcoming.
Ministers must also be clear about the extent of their ambition: this must not be a half-way house. All schools must be open, all lessons taught by teachers, exams must be sat, sports fixtures played, uniforms worn, and extra-curricular activities enjoyed.
It is to be welcomed that we are going to have a detailed plan at the end of this week to achieve this ambition. We hear that the Prime Minister is “deeply frustrated” that we haven’t had as many kids back in yet. But government rhetoric must be matched by action, and steadiness of nerve.
There is a long time to go between now and September. The Government will experience many huge problems in the coming months. It will find itself fighting many economic and healthcare crises, and it will be forced to publish many more no doubt horrifying financial figures. There will continue to be vested interests arguing that we must remain on pause, or that we should focus on other areas instead.
The DfE must ensure that education does not get lost in all this noise. Where efforts are required across government, this must happen. Ministers and senior civil servants must fight for the attention of Downing Street and the Treasury. No one can be allowed to forget how much rides on getting school gates open at the end of the summer holidays.
I’ve spent the past 20 years working to improve social mobility and on transforming the life chances for young people. We cannot allow this virus to deflect us from this most important agenda. There is no time to waste: schools and their students need certainty about September now.