At the start of the Covid-19 crisis, Chris Whitty often made the point that a pandemic kills in two ways: directly and indirectly. Locking down society also costs lives — and stymies life chances. Ever since the government moved to embrace lockdown, neither ministers nor the chief medical officer have talked much about the collateral damage it inflicts. This is odd, because it is perfectly defensible to say that lockdown is the least damaging course of action while still acknowledging the harm it causes, particularly for the young.
Not since Victorian times have so many children spent so little time in school. As ever, it is the poorest who will be most affected by the lack of education over the past year. The phrase ‘online learning’ will strike many parents as a tragic contradiction in terms: not many seven-year-olds are likely to learn very much staring at a computer all day. Nor is it obvious that the education they’ve received — for nearly a year now — is anything like a proper or tailored online course: we’ve bluntly transferred the classroom on to Zoom, and will have left many children behind in the process.
Rather than assess the problem, ministers have moved to cover it up by granting generous exam results. In theory, last year was the best ever for A-levels and GCSEs. In practice, we witnessed educational calamity. There has been strikingly little discussion about how to appraise the extent of the damage, which is, of course, the precursor to any attempt at repair.
An Ofsted report published in November found that more than two months of lost schooling last spring had resulted in children regressing in basic skills such as reading and writing. There was a rise in eating disorders and self-harm.