We cannot allow the government to portray itself as the party of education or the champion of the vulnerable children who are currently forced to stay away from school.
The Conservative party has shown consistently – through education reforms, benefit cuts and cuts to the funding for schools and children’s services – that it does not genuinely have the welfare and life chances of children at the heart of its governing mission. We cannot allow it to use school closures to pretend that it does. Education is central to any version of socialism or social democracy worth having and standing up for these children is Labour’s natural role.
There are clearly times when the level of infection in the country and the potential impact on health and the NHS means that schools must close. This is not a decision taken on the merits of the school environment but on the level of contacts in the community, of which schools are clearly a significant aspect. However, the decision to close schools should never be advocated without a real understanding of the consequences it brings.
So whilst recognising the need for school closures, we must unashamedly be the party of education. We need to highlight the terrible consequences of school closures and the complete failure of government to put proper mitigations in place as well as calling out the decisions which over the last decade have meant that families in poverty are so dependent on schools – not just for education but to meet the basic requirements of their children.
We all know that there is a deep education gap in our country. Those who start life with advantages continue to accumulate them and progress more easily through life; boosted by good early development. They eventually achieve higher grades and higher levels of education in more elite institutions before going on to earn more and live longer lives. Many of these children would be able to thrive even if their education were left solely to their parents: the input of schools is not the ‘make or break’ factor in their development.
But for many more children, schools are the key education input and their outcomes are dependent on the quality of the education they get from the school system. We consistently see primary schools close educational outcome gaps from foundation stage to high school transition and despite the huge inequalities in society they go some way to ensuring that children have equal access to the skills and learning they need to progress in life.
Closing schools takes away that equalising influence and leaves pupils more exposed to the effects of inequality in their backgrounds. On top of the physical barriers to good learning at home, such as the lack of space to work or digital access and the unavailability of books and resources, some parents may not have enough time or enough knowledge to teach their children effectively.
Of course, schools are doing a lot of work even when ‘closed’. They are open for the children of key workers and to some of the most vulnerable groups – those with additional needs and those who have involvement with social services. Yet in a city like Manchester, where 50 per cent of our children grow up in poverty, this still means that there are a high number of struggling families who are nowhere near the government definition of ‘vulnerable’ and even those groups which meet the definition might be deterred by the stigmatising nature of the offer to them.
We should be worried enough about school closures on the basis of the devastating impact on outcomes. But we are also seeing the consequences of a decade of cuts to family services. For too many families, schools are a fundamental part of the welfare state and one which they cannot cope without. The well-publicised debate over free school meals highlights just one way in which families in poverty rely on schools being open – not just to educate their children, but to survive.
A decade of cuts to welfare, the Conservative abandonment of the child poverty agenda and an unfair housing market has meant too many children who are now out of school are hungry, cold and struggling to work in poor conditions. It is a damning indictment of how the social support structure around families has been stripped away and how much we have come to rely on schools to fill the gaps.
The government has a principled ideological commitment to exams at any cost and up until the start of the January lockdown it was insisting that they would take place.
In Manchester throughout the autumn term we were seeing thousands of children isolating every week after already missing the first year of their course. They were being told they would still be expected to sit exams and to be pitted against their peers, peers who started off with better life chances and who had then received better education when it was disrupted. If exams had taken place, the consequences for the most vulnerable would have been horrendous.
We should not accept the government’s basic principle that distributing grades and ranking pupils is a priority.
Separating children into bands of achievement isn’t an end in itself, but a way of establishing which children have the foundational knowledge, ability and commitment to develop future areas of study.
Devising systems to determine what they could possibly have achieved had they completed their course – whether in an exam or some version of last year’s staggering algorithm – is a fiction. The children pushed through whichever system is used will not have had the same teaching nor built up the knowledge required. Whether they have a grade is meaningless: they don’t need the grade, they need the knowledge and the skills.
Rather than obsess over the method of dishing out grades, we should be looking at how the gaps that many children will leave school with can be addressed in their future, whether they go to university, college or into an apprenticeship. We need a massive programme of funding to make sure that time is made up right across the age range or else this cohort will be battling with future cohorts for resources. Many will face being written off. We can help children catch up but we shouldn’t underestimate the scale of the challenge. Coming up with a system to rank pupils might tick a box at the Department for Education but it is spectacularly missing the point.
Labour is, and should proudly remain, the party of education.
We should want schools to open at the earliest opportunity – because education is central to our values. Interaction with trained and trusted teachers is fundamental and a laptop or a worksheet at home will never replace it – particularly for those who need formal education the most.
Coming out of the crisis, we need to focus our attention on the next steps for this cohort of children at all stages of education. The solutions should be locally led, enable professionals working in the sector – and they should be funded properly. Failing to meet the scale of the challenge will further entrench disadvantage for generations.
And we also need to use this crisis to argue for radical change to a system where schools are expected to address all of society’s ills. We need work that pays properly, benefits to be paid at a level where people can feed their families and heat their homes Above all we badly need eliminating child poverty and giving children the best start in life to become a central focus of the British government again.