First published in The Telegraph:
The four horsemen of the school closure apocalypse have been galloping towards our children. The Covid generation of young people have had to face up to staggering gaps in learning and attainment, a huge rise in mental health problems, significant safeguarding hazards and, according to a study by the IFS, a lifetime loss of earnings up to £40,000.
Not only are there more than 300,000 children being sent home each week because of the pandemic, but we also know - thanks to thenworknof the Centre fir Social Justice - that there are 93,500 pupils who are missing 50% of school or more. We are in very real danger of creating a generation of ghost children damaging their prospects for decades to come.
The Prime Minister’s former education tsar Sir Kevan Collins, quoting statistics from the DfE, has warned of a long-term cost of £100billion from the pandemic. If we are to avoid destroying the life chances of children i the Government must come up with a properly resourced long-term plan for education.
As an immediate priority, pupils must remain at school and not be sent home because of the pandemic. If schools don’t have the capacity to test, why not establish mobile testing units as soon as possible.
Second, the Department for Education must galvanise local authorities, schools and Ofsted to ensure that the 93,500 ghost children return to school.
Third, the catch-up programme must reach the most disadvantaged pupils. Currently just 44% of children on free school meals are getting access to the National Tutoring Programme.
The plan must be more ambitious than catch-up tuition. Longer school days need to be introduced. Not just for learning but for extra curricular activities, such as sport and well-being. Mental health counsellors should also be placed in every school.
School funding is not reaching the parts where it is needed most. There needs to be wholesale reform of the pupil premium grant, so it really does get to the most disadvantaged pupils. Not only should the catch-up fund be merged into the pupil premium fund, but it should be weighted to account for persistent disadvantage and ring-fenced so it is not used to plug other gaps in school finances. Funding should be micro-targeted at neighbourhood level, rather than just one size fits all.
Our education system faces the further challenges of tackling the long-term attainment gap and the underperformance of disadvantaged and white working class pupils and ensuring that the curriculum better prepares our young people for the future world of work.
Education should be widened to ensure an unerring focus on technical education all the way through. The Ebacc should be reformed, with a curriculum that includes both academic subjects and at least one vocational course, like design and technology.
The Government could super-charge its technical and skills agenda, inspiring all young people to consider alternatives to the well-trodden academic pathways.
The Prime Minister’s levelling up agenda should be as much about education infrastructure as economic infrastructure. We need an education system that gives everyone, no matter their background or where they are in the country, the chance to climb the ladder of opportunity.