When Boris Johnson announced the easing of lockdown this week, there was nothing for schools. Pubs, yes. Theme parks, even. But the education of children? There is no great rush for that, it seems. First things first. I have a 14-year-old daughter at a state grammar and like so many parents, I am in despair.
The two-metre rule, which had presented such problems for schools, is finally being relaxed. But far from cheering the move as a crucial step towards getting children into the classroom, the teaching unions are still cavilling — advising headteachers to ensure they have contingency plans for bringing only half of pupils back, on a rotating basis.
The Prime Minister has said all pupils should return in September. But he’s not making it compulsory so parents are still at the mercy of the unions. Indeed, following Tuesday’s announcement, Geoff Barton of the Association of School and College Leaders maintained the ambition was ‘pure fantasy’. Our daughter’s school has merely said it is ‘working on the notion’ of a September return, albeit with an ‘adapted timetable’. Private schools, meanwhile, have promised a full resumption. Some have hired marquees; four in five prep school pupils are back in class already. During lockdown, they remained pretty well taught.
Researchers at the Institute of Education at University College London recently found that 31 per cent of private schools are providing four or more online lessons a day. Just 6 per cent of state schools do the same. Seventy-one per cent of state school pupils are receiving less than an hour’s teaching a day. When I learned of these figures, I moved beyond frustration to fury. And I am far from alone.
You might think a grammar school would be keen to maintain a reputation for academic excellence. Not a bit of it. At our daughter’s school, parents have been told the girls should not be overburdened and their well-being must come first. I would suggest that the mental health of pupils would be far better served by being fully occupied. My daughter has classmates who claim not to have completed a single piece of work since lockdown began on 23 March.
Meanwhile, a friend in the same year group, who attends a private school, has had a full timetable online from day one. She is at a computer, in uniform, every day from 8.30 a.m. Every lesson in the curriculum is delivered online with interactive feedback. Then comes a full programme of extra-curricular activities, including music masterclasses, arts and crafts, and debating.
Until recently, pupils at Britain’s best state schools had been getting better results than those at the best private schools. Lockdown will have brought an end to this. Even if Gavin Williamson (or his replacement) gets a grip and all children are able to return — full-time — in September, the focus will be on the worst hit. The government’s trumpeted £1 billion package is unlikely to benefit the kids who have been bumping along. The richest have had private schools, the poorest will get extra help — but the children of the ‘squeezed middle’ will just have to get on with it. Those who had expected to be in direct competition with their privately educated peers for places at top universities do not figure in the discussion.
Neil Roskilly, of the Independent Schools Association, tells me they are ‘getting more and more demands from parents’, particularly for places at primaries. And why? Because no one is in any doubt that the ‘attainment gap’ — the source of so much belated hand-wringing in Whitehall — has widened by the week. As Professor Francis Green, who led that UCL study, concluded: ‘Everyone is losing out in this generation [but] some much more than others.’ Those with the means are getting the hell out of the state sector.
I’m tempted too. I have watched our daughter, an only child happier with her own company than most, steadily wither over these past three months. She needs peer stimulation and the encouragement and the admonishments of her teachers — the interactions that make school a school. The initial motivation is long gone. She is alternately sad and frustrated, though coping better than many if my conversations with other parents are anything to go by. Unlike our friends’ children, who have reportedly been horrified and wholly resistant to the idea of moving school at this late stage, she is begging us to explore alternatives.
It’s a momentous decision to make under pressure and at such a crucial juncture in her education (not to mention her social development). In a time of instability, is it wise to remove a constant? What if she is unhappy? Can we afford it? But then, with another lockdown being discussed, can we afford not to?