James Kirkup

Keeping schools closed until September would hammer poor kids

Keeping schools closed until September would hammer poor kids
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Schools should stay closed until September, according to a big teaching union:

In view of the continued and pressing public health challenges and the considerable task that will be required to ensure that every school is ready to admit increased numbers of children and adults into safe learning and working environments, the NASUWT urges ministers to act to end speculation on the reopening of schools beyond the current restrictions prior to September 2020.

That’s the latest from Patrick Roach, head of the NASUWT. This is a hardening of the line from teaching unions, and one that I think has the potential to cause significant tensions with the government.

So far, ministers have been careful to play nicely with school leaders over the lockdown, rightly noting that many teachers are working extremely hard to adapt their working practices to offer online learning and support to children away from the classroom.

There are lots of reasons for that approach, but one of them is a desire to avoid getting drawn into another firefight with 'the blob', the vested educational interests that Michael Gove and Dominic Cummings sought to dismantle when they were at the Department for Education.

The current incumbent at DfE is Gavin Williamson, who has been at pains to work amicably with the unions, perhaps calculating that a pandemic that has seen public outpourings of support for public service staff is no time for a spat with a group of keyworkers.

But can that emollience endure? And should it? Consider that NASUWT position: schools closed until September. That would mean almost six months away from formal education for around 98 per cent of children.

Leave aside, if that’s possible, the economic consequences of that for working parents. What about the educational impact of such a long closure? Simply, it would hammer poor children and cause them to fall further behind better-off classmates. I’ve written at some length about this here so I won’t rehearse the point too much. But the painful truth that lockdown hurts the education of poor children more than rich kids deserves more attention in the debate about re-opening schools. Even more painful are the suggestions that lack of contact with schools is putting some children at greater risk of abuse at home – mistreatment that is now less likely to be picked up by teachers and referred to social services.

There is, of course, much that can be done to cushion the educational blow of lockdown. The government is giving laptops to kids who don’t have them, setting up an online academy to share lessons and looking at options including catch-up tutoring and other support for kids who fall (further) behind during the lockdown. But can such measures completely offset the differential impact of a long spell away from school? I doubt it, and so do some of those involved in those measures.

So it is hard to avoid the conclusion that the NASUWT, a major teaching union, is now advocating a policy that would significantly harm the education and prospects of a great many children from low-income homes.

I’m sure the union has the best of motives: Dr Roach’s statement talks about the need to avoid a significant second spike in infections. That’s hard to argue with, although it’s worth noting that scientific assessments of the role school children play in spreading the virus is mixed.

What’s most striking about the NASUWT position is that it talks a lot about public health – not strictly in the remit of a teaching union – and says nothing about the educational needs of children. And that makes me wonder whether ministers’ amicable approach to the teaching unions can continue. Doesn’t someone have to speak up for poor and vulnerable children in all this?