In education and in politics, we often speak of ‘disadvantage’ and the ‘left behind’. Regardless of your politics, most of us do what we do to try to support and improve the lives of the many (even though we may disagree on the best way to do it). The COVID-19 pandemic has brought the stark disadvantage gaps in this country to the forefront of daily news and discussions. In his speech last week, Boris Johnson spoke of the postcode lottery that impacts the future of the workforce and job opportunities across our country.
Coronavirus also risks widening the education disadvantage gap to a size we have not seen in generations. We face a potential wave of education poverty, a growing digital divide and a new frontier of safeguarding vulnerabilities. The pandemic, unfortunately, will only exacerbate the inequalities. The Education Endowment Foundation has estimated that the gap could widen by as much as 75 percent due to school closures, potentially reversing a decade of progress to narrow inequalities.
Despite school and college buildings shut for up to five months, lecturers. teachers and support staff have transformed the country’s education system almost overnight by moving to a hybrid online-physical delivery model. Many have worked tirelessly to keep schools and colleges open for vulnerable children and those of key workers. For that, they must be praised. The Prime Minister’s speech this week builds on the recent announcements for capital works for schools and colleges, and the catch-up premium for schools. The government is right to take action to help school pupils catch up for lost time and to focus on those who are already disadvantaged.
What was missing in this catch up announcement was the needs of the 700,000 young people in colleges, highlighting the PM’s words that ‘for a century we have failed to invest enough in further education’. The Prime Minister must not be caught out by his own words. He needs to mirror the dual capital investment model and reflect that in the catch-up premium as well, ringfencing an additional proportionate fund for colleges to support those students entering further education after a disrupted final year of schooling.
The challenge now is ensuring that we reach all those additional pupils at risk of being left behind by the digital divide, protecting vulnerable pupils, supporting those who could fall out of education and training forever due to the pandemic and planning for safe reopening. Young people’s experiences of learning under lockdown have been radically different. We know that better-off pupils are spending, on average, 30 percent more time on remote learning than disadvantaged pupils. On the other hand, 2.3 million young people are reported to be doing less than one hour of learning a day during lockdown, if that. Approximately 5% (35,000) of college learners do not have access to the IT kit required to continue learning. Online learning is simply impossible for the many young people who do not have good IT equipment or access to the internet.
Many other young people are taking on caring responsibilities or suffering from poor mental health. We must not forget that adolescents from lower-income families, black and minority ethnic families or those living in rural areas might feel all of these pressures more acutely. This matters because the evidence is clear, that the longer the achievement gap is open, the more difficult it is to close, or even begin to narrow.
This is why we need a catch-up premium that includes 16 to 18-year-olds.
The Association of Colleges’ ‘REBUILD: A skills led recovery’ plan, states that 16 percent of 16 to 18-year-old college students were on free school meals at Year 11 but higher numbers of those resitting English and maths qualifications come from disadvantaged backgrounds. 70 percent of these students count as disadvantaged, and 23 percent have identified learning needs.
The sector also predicts a large gap in English and Maths success for those that are just scraping through this summer. The model and strategy may need to look different for older learners but the premise is the same. Providing any disadvantaged, disengaged, or vulnerable student with learning and tuition support which will ensure they have the best chance to succeed at such a critical point in their learning and development.
It is time for an investment in a college-based national tutoring scheme, and a re-engagement and catch-up programme for students who have yet to achieve good grades in English and maths. Colleges will be able to use this premium to recruit more staff and meet the needs of their most vulnerable students. Using their relationships with local government, other civic institutions, charities, and businesses to get this right.
Young people from all walks of life, in all circumstances need and deserve the same chances as everyone else. None of this current crisis is their fault, but they will be the ones to live with the consequences for the rest of their lives if we fail them. Our proposal for a catchup premium could give thousands of young people the skills they need to climb the ladder of opportunity and get the jobs they need, after coronavirus. We must invest in it.
Robert Halfon is the Member of Parliament for Harlow and Chair of the Education Select Committee