Aswitch of personnel at the Department of Health this week has brought a welcome change in the government’s tone. No longer, it seems, are ministers looking for reasons to delay the final stage of lifting lockdown restrictions. After 16 months of curtailments on liberty, 19 July is inked in as the day when society and the economy will finally throw off the shackles of Covid restrictions. The vaccines mean that the virus has been downgraded to the status of flu and pneumonia: nasty bugs, sometimes fatal, but not enough to warrant locking down society with all the immense collateral damage that entails.
Yet as pubs, theatres and concert halls are allowed to fill again, it is important to remember that recovering from the pandemic is about more than just reopening society. There is the serious job of rebuilding to be done, and nowhere more so than in children’s education. In our obsession with daily Covid infection figures, we have lost sight of another frightening statistic, revealed by the Centre for Social Justice: that 33,000 children disappeared from full-time education as a result of the first lockdown. That is to say, they were absent from school on more days than they were in attendance.
We hear endlessly from public figures about how we should ‘build back better’ by creating cycle lanes, reducing carbon emissions and other fashionable causes. But we hear rather less about schools. Good though it would be to ‘build back better’, it will be a big enough challenge just to get back to where we were before the pandemic. And while a road can be re-laid at any time, children get just one chance at education.
The announcement by the Education Secretary Gavin Williamson this week that he wants to impose a national ban on mobile phones being used in the classroom shows yet again a worrying attachment to irrelevant detail. Schools already have powers to impose such bans, and most do. For once union leaders were right when they questioned whether a blanket mobile ban should really be the government’s immediate priority, not least because schools have spent much of the past year having to educate pupils remotely and may have developed strategies which rely on children being able to, say, submit homework electronically.
Surely the government’s first task should be to ensure that children can access their classrooms? Ministers are currently failing miserably. On Thursday last week a remarkable 375,000 pupils — 5 per cent of those enrolled in English state schools — were absent. Of these, 279,000 were forced to isolate at home because a fellow pupil or a teacher had tested positive for Covid-19.
Many children have been subjected to these enforced absences multiple times — forced to shelter at home on the grounds that they might possibly have been exposed to an infection which is highly unlikely to do them any significant harm. At the height of the pandemic there was a case for treating schools as places where the virus might incubate, and from which it might then travel home to infect parents and grandparents who were very much at risk. But the success of the vaccination programme — which means most older people are double-jabbed — has changed the picture. The ‘bubble’ system, where entire groups have to self-isolate if one person tests positive, was designed for a different era and now causes more harm than it prevents. It has to go.
The greater danger is the effect on children’s mental health of being placed in enforced idleness, away from friends and social contact. Or of them never being given the help they need to recover from the education they have lost. It is shocking that, as the Pharmaceutical Journal has revealed, 27,000 children were prescribed antidepressants in just one month at the height of the third lockdown.
Unless we are very careful, the disruption to children’s education will remain with them for life. We risk creating a ‘Covid generation’ of badly educated people. The Prime Minister has talked a good game about helping these pupils catch up, and his national tutoring programme has potential. But there is a need for far more urgency, and greater effort to reach poorer pupils.
Sir Kevan Collins, the government’s education catch-up czar, quit over the lack of money on offer to deal with the problem. Cash is not, of course, the only issue. But given that the government has spent vast sums on things that have not worked — such as £5 billion on a Test and Trace system which makes no more than a marginal difference to infection rates — his frustration is understandable.
Instead of solving the problem of disrupted progress in education, the government has covered it up by cancelling exams and awarding inflated estimated grades. Alongside teachers, they are attempting to conceal the damage inflicted on children’s education. Next year’s exams will also be ‘adjusted’ to take account of Covid. In other words, the real educational cost will be covered up. This is worse than a failure to help: it’s a con-spiracy to not look properly at the problem.
Such self-deception helps no one. As Covid is increasingly reduced to an endemic disease, the highest priority needs to be restoring education — and therefore the life chances — of a very ill-treated generation. The response must not be half-hearted, as it has been to date.