The coronavirus will widen the education gap in the UK

Children living in poverty are even harder to reach in a pandemic, and years of austerity policies have not helped.

Education UK
Children play on the street in a town in the north east of England, which has some of the worst levels of economic deprivation in the UK [File: Getty Images]

Under normal circumstances, it would now be the spring holidays for most schools. But, instead of packing the car to take one of my daughters to visit her grandparents for a few days, I just got off the phone to students who attend my school.

We are more than three weeks into a lockdown in the UK. My school – an academy on the outskirts of West London – serves a wonderfully diverse community, but nearly half of all students are what the UK government determines as disadvantaged.

Their families are eligible for free school meals as a result of being in receipt of Universal Credit, a monthly payment in the UK to help with living costs for those on a low income or out of work.

However, sitting above that group, perhaps a further 20 percent or more of our school population, whose families are not eligible for Universal Credit, are still very much the working poor.

Both of these groups constantly live on the edge of poverty. Their already fragile economic situation is easily tipped by an unexpected expense – a pair of new school shoes, an electricity bill or a broken washing machine.

This situation is now exacerbated tenfold by the ravages of a global coronavirus pandemic. And this is the issue.

While the daily news bulletins bring unfathomable death tolls from every corner of the globe, tales of woefully unequipped hospitals, overflowing morgues, exhausted front-line hospital staff and desperate grieving relatives, there lies beyond that a further crisis of poverty and desperation in Britain.

In 1940, at the start of the second world war, the mass evacuation of nearly 1.5 million British children from the cities to the countryside exposed a chasm in society.

Tales of malnourished and diseased children arriving in the countryside from the inner cities galvanised a team of civil servants, led by social reformer William Beveridge, to work on creating a fairer post-war society that would eradicate evils including poverty and lack of education by bringing in social insurance and equality of education through the 1944 Butler Education Act.

Nearly 80 years on, the lockdown of our nation, including the decision to close schools, has once again revealed huge inequity and inequality.

Currently, 1.3 million children in England are classed as disadvantaged – the number entitled to free school meals. These children are now prisoners in their own homes, many of which are small, cramped flats with little or no outside space.

Here, they are supposed to participate in distance learning. This involves accessing online lessons and resources for anything from two to five hours a day.

But, for many of the 1.3 million as well as the 20 percent beyond them who are not entitled to income support, this learning is not taking place in a quiet corner of a room seated at a desk with books, pens and a helpful, well-educated adult on hand.

Not for these children the accoutrements found in many a middle-class home including access to a device, whether a tablet or a personal computer, or the internet.

Data sourced from TeacherTapp – an app that pings daily questions to more than 6,000 UK teachers – revealed at the end of the first week of lockdown, that 10 percent of students in their schools do not have access to either a device or the internet.

While it is difficult to determine the accuracy of that statistic, I know from my own school that a child’s access is likely to be an allocated 60 to 90 minutes on a shared household laptop, personal computer or tablet.

In a number of families, their only access to an online classroom is via their mobile phone, which makes any completion of work and uploading it onto an online platform almost impossible.

The same data set also revealed that teachers working in the most disadvantaged state schools felt that 43 percent of their students were doing less than an hour of learning a day, compared with only 14 percent of students as reported by teachers working in more advantaged state schools. It is a significant difference.

What is clear is that the learning and, therefore, the attainment gap – between those who are disadvantaged and those who are not – that has worried the profession and the government for over a decade will grow exponentially.

As our lockdown looks set to be extended – possibly until the end of the academic year – the impact of more than three months of missed schooling will have long-lasting effects.

Academics who have looked at home/school effects on academic attainment by children often refer to the 1:9 ratio. This means that it is thought that home impact accounts for nine-tenths of the influence on a child’s development, habits and behaviour, while school only accounts for one-tenth.

But the reality for those of us working in disadvantaged communities is that the school effect can be a powerful one-tenth. If many already vulnerable children cannot attend school for the duration of lockdown, then that effect and long-lasting impact is lost.

If, for three months or more, the learning habits acquired within the structure and routine of a well-equipped school are pulled away, then without a doubt we will see a huge dip in the learning gap.

The question for us now is how will we plug that gap? The schooling we will need in place for September will need to look and feel very different.

It becomes a much wider question of what the role of school and education is, how schools cannot be the catch-all safety net for wider societal issues, and crucially how schools are held accountable for these things.

Following a decade of government austerity policies causing schools to be underfunded, ministers’ obsession with high-stakes testing, and schools then being held to account by inspectorates in the UK, it is no surprise that school leaders have been facing a national recruitment and retention crisis.

The fight against coronavirus has shown us that schools are much more than just education providers.

For more than one and a half million children in the UK at least, school is a place of safety, sanctuary and at least one meal a day.

As millions are now being spent on mitigating against the biggest recession the UK has ever faced, there is also a need to design and properly invest in an integrated social care, health and education system fit for our post-pandemic world.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.