Published:

Emily Carver is Head of Media at the Institute of Economic Affairs.

Over the course of this pandemic, J S Mill’s “harm principle” has been used to rationalise the decision to lockdown. At first glance this appears reasonable, however, it rests on the assumption that the harm caused by the virus exceeds that of lockdown. It will be many months before we fully comprehend the impact of the restrictions, but the former assumption may be flawed when applied to education.

The Prime Minister has now confirmed that schools will reopen in March, which will no doubt come as a relief to parents up and down this country. But the temporary school closures, and the disruption of nearly a whole year of education, have severely affected children’s well-being and educational progress – the impact of which will be felt for many years.

The toll on mental health is already recognised. In a survey of over 10,000 parents, over half said they had seen a negative change in the mental health of their children since lockdown. The rates of probable mental disorders among children have risen considerably, increasing from one in nine in 2017 to one in six in July 2020. Anecdotally, parents are reporting a rise in disordered eating, anxiety and loneliness.

Far from being a leveller, the pandemic has, inevitably, impacted disproportionately the education of the already disadvantaged. During the first lockdown, primary age children from the richest third of families received four and a half more hours of learning time compared to those from the poorest third of families. This has compounded pre-existing inequities and is nothing short of a scandal.

Months on, children from middle-class households are still, on average, spending considerably more time learning than those from working-class households. Regional inequalities are also stark, with children in London and the South East spending more time on schoolwork, both online and offline, than those in other parts of the country.

The Government plans to give schools a cash boost to fund “catch up” classes during the summer holidays, and to pay staff to work additional hours to support children who have fallen behind. Such interventions are welcome and should hopefully go some way to mitigating the impact of the last year on pupils’ progress.

However, this will be little more than a sticking plaster unless the Government addresses the broader, more structural problems in our schooling system. It is no secret that our education system is failing many children in this country; you only have to look to the international league tables to see that the UK is underperforming compared to Asian countries, as well as a number of European nations. This should be a national embarrassment.

While it is certainly true that our elite schools, in both the independent and state sector, are some of the highest performing in the world, too many are lagging behind. If the Government is as serious about education as it claims to be, there needs to be a renewed effort to address the system’s failings. It is simply disgraceful that somewhere between 15 and 20 per cent of our young people may be “functionally illiterate” when they leave school!

So, where do we go from here? A new paper by the Institute of Economic Affairs argues this could be the time for a radical rethink of our education system.

To begin with, why do we insist children start school by age five? This is earlier than in most other developed countries and actually dates back to a time when the majority of children left school at ten. Considering that teachers have reported that significant numbers of children are quite simply unprepared to start school at this age (another scandal), it may well be the case that children would be better off entering school a little later, when they are more ready to benefit from formal education. Of course, this will have an impact on pre-schooling arrangements which, at present, greatly advantage the better off. It also seems inexplicable that we have children entering reception classes with almost a year between the oldest and youngest in the class, which has been proven to disadvantage summer babies.

Longer school days have been mooted by politicians over the years, including by the former Education Secretary Michael Gove, but little has changed. If additional classes help those falling behind now due to the pandemic, why not be bold, and extend this into the future? Not only would this allow more scope for extra-curricular activities – something that has been sorely missed during the past year – but the extra hours would allow for homework to be replaced by supervised class work – a welcome move for those pupils who struggle to work from home and a way to improve the educational outcomes of the less advantaged.

However, such policies could prove difficult to implement. The teaching unions have been very resistant to government policy over the course of the pandemic and could present a rather stubborn obstacle in the way of any radical reform of the school year. In order to pursue any meaningful change, the Government would need to amend the national contract, which is tied to the traditional school year, and which the unions may perceive as an existential assault on their influence. Of course, the majority of teachers are not as intransigent as their union representatives and may be more flexible in their attitude towards change, if well-argued.

Successful academies, independent schools and free schools have provided useful models for a way ahead. Free from the restrictions of the national contract, such schools have been able to innovate with their education provision, experiment with the length of the school day and diversify their curricula. It is interesting that many of these institutions serve less-advantaged children and are led by headteachers who advocate “traditional” methods of knowledge-based learning, discipline and pride in the institution itself. Further academisation may provide the flexibility we need to boost standards significantly.

And why not offer parents more choice? The Government currently pays schools a “pupil premium” to support disadvantaged pupils. This amounts to £1,345 for every primary age pupil and £955 for those in secondary school. However, parents have no say in how this is spent. We know how much private tuition can benefit children’s learning, so why not place more power in the hands of less well-off parents and redirect this money in the form of vouchers, which could then be used to hire tutors or for other educational purposes?

It would be naïve to suggest that there are quick fixes to the myriad of challenges facing any secretary of state for education. However, it is clear that this pandemic has shown up fundamental fault lines in the provision of schooling in this country. If the Government is really serious about levelling-up, there has to be a reconsideration of the way in which we provide education; it is neither moral nor sensible to congratulate ourselves on our elite schools and universities when so many children leave school ill-equipped to enter adult life. It is in the interests of everyone to have a well-educated, workforce at the heart of a successful, vibrant economy.