Schools in England, it seems, will reopen fully on 8 March at the earliest – a full two months after they closed. The Prime Minister has declined to bring this forward, in spite of new Covid cases falling at a rate of 25 per cent per week. The Scottish and Welsh governments have both said they will partially reopen schools in February. What was looking like being half-a-term's lost schooling is now looking to be closer to a full term's worth. That comes on top of over two months of school closures last year – and some interrupted education in the autumn terms as teachers and pupils were forced to self-isolate on many occasions.
What will be the long-term cost of the lost months of education? The OECD has had a go at estimating it. Analysing data from previous instances where education has been disrupted, such as a long teachers’ strike in Wallonia in 1990, to a reorganisation of education in Germany in the 1960s, which saw some children missing out on education, its findings make for depressing reading.
It concludes that a term’s worth of lost education could go on to cost the US $14 trillion (£10.2trn) in lost output, Germany $3.1 trillion (£2.3trn) and Britain $2.2 trillion (£1.6trn) over the next 80 years as the effects on children last a lifetime.
As a general (global) rule, says the OECD, each year of school education adds an estimated 10 per cent to a pupil's earnings. On this basis, it concludes that a lost term could reduce a child’s future lifetime earnings by around three per cent.
Given that many children will have lost at least two terms present in school, the loss in earnings might be closer to six or seven per cent. How much earnings potential children will lose depends on the effectiveness of a country’s education in the first place. The OECD estimates that a full year of education lost by a Singaporean child could cost 16.7 per cent of lifetime earnings. At the opposite extreme, a Greek child could lose 4.6 per cent.
What the study doesn’t take into account is the effect of remote learning. When, for example, children in southern Belgium were kept out of school by a teachers’ strike in 1990 they missed out on education altogether. There was no internet that was accessible by ordinary households. Now, by varying degrees, children are getting some kind of education delivered by remote means.
The trouble is that this provision has been very uneven, with some schools carrying on a more or less full timetable while others have provided an hour or less of teaching a day. It isn’t just overall earning potential that stands to be affected by school closures, but inequality. If the OECD’s assumptions are anything to go by, every week of lost learning will have a severe impact on inequality in decades to come.