Brendan O’Neill

The school closures debate exposes Britain’s class divide

The school closures debate exposes Britain’s class divide
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There have been many shocking sights in this cursed year. For me, one of the most shocking has been the sight of comfortably off, Oxbridge-educated experts and journalists agitating for the closure of schools even though they know this will hit poor kids hardest.

This alarmingly cavalier attitude towards the education of the less well-off has exposed the class tensions that lurk behind the lockdown.

Once again, depressingly, school closures are back on the agenda. SAGE says the only way we can get the current wave of Covid infections under control is by enforcing a proper lockdown, including the closure of schools and universities. Many in the media, long smitten with SAGE, agree. Teaching unions, who have perversely spent much of 2020 arguing for schools to be shut and kids to be kept at home, also want face-to-face learning to be put on hold. Patrick Roach of the NASUWT says we should revert to remote learning in January.

The government is erming and ahhing. It has decided to stagger the return of kids to classrooms in England. It seems that exam-year pupils -- Year 11 and Year 13 -- will return, but other secondary-school pupils will have to learn from home. Wales and Scotland have both delayed the start of the January term. Westminster might yet buckle and force more English schoolkids into the dreaded Zoom classroom -- a ridiculous parody of pedagogy.

In 2020 we have witnessed something deeply disturbing: the suspension of education for millions of children. This is the true consequence of so-called 'remote learning' -- many, many children do not learn. In cramped homes, with very few resources, overseen by stressed, busy parents, kids have not received anything like a proper education. Their learning has been put on hold. And, disgracefully, this has been cheered on by teaching unions and public-sector leftists. They want more of it, in fact. Their cry of 'Close schools in January!' signals how little they care about the education of working-class and poor children.

For make no mistake -- it is those children who suffer most when schools are shut. Children who attend private schools did pretty well during lockdown.

Research by University College London, published in June, following the closure of schools during the first lockdown, found that 71 per cent of state-school pupils had between none and one online lessons a day, while many private schools were providing four or more online lessons a day.

The National Foundation for Educational Research found that 42 per cent of state-school children were not completing their work, and that 'pupils in the most disadvantaged schools were the least likely to be engaged with remote learning'.

There were big divides even among comprehensively educated students. The Sutton Trust found that kids in middle-class homes were twice as likely to take part in online lessons as kids in working-class homes. Forty-four per cent of middle-class children had spent four hours or more on schoolwork each day when schools were closed, compared with just 33 per cent of working-class children.

It isn't hard to see why. The less well-off a child's family is, the less likely that child is to have a computer, a quiet room to learn in, parents who have the time to assist with learning. When you push education out of the classroom and into the home, it is inevitable that social inequality will rear its ugly head.

Classrooms are a great equaliser; children from all sorts of backgrounds enter them as equals with a right to a decent education. Home life, of course, is not equal: some children live in big, spacious houses and have books and dictionaries and every gadget going; others do not.

I often think about what would have happened to my education if my school had been shut. There were six children in my family, all boys, all rowdy, and conditions were cramped. Our young parents were always busy, earning a living. We had one ZX Spectrum back then (which we fought over constantly); these days we'd probably have a laptop or two. There is just no way we would have learned. Our right to gain knowledge and expand our minds would have been halted. That is happening to millions of kids right now.

Those demanding the closure of schools have got to be honest with themselves, and with us. They have got to admit that they think it is not a particularly big deal to suspend education for working-class children. They at least have to admit that this will be the consequence of their demand being enacted -- that the educational rights they enjoyed, very often in good schools and well-resourced middle-class homes, will be denied to children whose only crime is to come from less well-off families.

Perhaps we shouldn't be surprised. No one wants to admit it, but the lockdown is riddled with class tensions. This bizarre social experiment in authoritarianism has been fine for many middle- and upper-class people, who could work from their nice homes and have a wander in their gardens. But it has been a disaster for the less well-off, stuck in small apartments, shamed by wealthy journalists if they dared to take a walk in a crowded park. Millions will lose their jobs, poverty will worsen.

There is something genuinely nauseating about well-remunerated members of the media and expert classes demanding harder, longer lockdowns without giving a second thought to the impact lockdowns have on working-class families. Lockdown often feels like an unspoken class war.

Yes, this new spike in infections is a genuine challenge. Yes, measures will have to be taken. However, a society that is indifferent to the education of the next generation is a society that has seriously lost its way. Education cannot stop. It must not stop. Even in the face of a health crisis like the one we are living through, we must find a way to keep kids in schools, accessing knowledge, sharpening their minds, enjoying their right to understand the world. I predict that future generations will look back on 2020, and possibly on early 2021, and be horrified that we stopped educating poor children.