Nick Maughan is an investor and philanthropist.
In a rapid escalation, four London borough councils have this week backed shutting schools early and switching to online learning. This follows the most disrupted year for education for generations, where children have collectively missed millions of hours of teaching. To shut our schools early again would be a grave mistake, harm the most deprived children and further set back a generation already facing a mountain to climb in a post-pandemic world.
Back in March, when the pandemic began in earnest, there was a case for closing schools. Our understanding of Covid 19 was limited and, had it turned out to have been more deadly amongst younger people than we now know to be the case, it would have been vindicated. However, our understanding of the disease today is greatly improved. There is no longer the justification for shutting schools that we had in March, especially given the lost education children have already experienced.
Speaking earlier this week, the Head of Ofsted, Amanda Spielman, said she believed that many children are “at least six months behind where they should be”. Spielman also pointed out the especially difficult situation of disabled and special needs children, who have struggled with the extra restrictions placed on them by the pandemic. These are the significant problems educational authorities and institutions are already having to deal with. These will be worsened by closing schools.
In many respects, we are fortunate that this tragic pandemic hit in 2020. Modern technology in the form of smartphones, tablets, high-speed internet and top-quality audio-visual equipment is standard. All this has been conducive to establishing an alternative form of schooling that has allowed education to continue in some form. In the 1970s, there simply would have been no education, schools would have closed and that would have been it. For some, learning has been able to continue, even if not in its ideal form.
However, the word ‘some’ is the operative one. Technology is emblematic of the divide between worse and better off pupils. In crude terms, the wealthier children have access to better computers, audio-visual equipment and online resources, in a way that the most deprived children do not. It therefore stands to reason that an early return to online learning, or a late return to school, is going to hit the worst-off children hardest.
In time, programmes could be established that see better provision of higher quality tech for the worst-off children. However, in the here and now it simply isn’t possible to make up for the added disruption to learning which shutting schools would mean. Parents, and most importantly the children themselves, have had enough anxiety and uncertainty to deal with in 2020, it would be especially cruel to add one final dose as the year ends.
In addition to the further educational setbacks shutting schools would entail, we would be adding further to the long-term mental health problems already caused by the pandemic. Children in particular, who have had confidence in their futures shaken, are especially vulnerable. We owe it to them to offer as much stability as possible, and that means keeping schools open.
There are many things that can be done to help the most vulnerable children come back from the educational setbacks this year has inflicted on them. Catch up classes, provision of better technology, incentives for former teachers to help provide more focused tuition for in-need kids. All these measures will be important to help bridge a widening attainment divide. However, none of them can be a sustainable, effective substitute for keeping schools open. That must be the priority above all else.