Ed McGuinness is a former Chairman of Islington Conservative Federation and stood for Hornsey & Wood Green at the general election.
Education is the silver bullet. In the formative years it gives children the skills to interact properly with their peers; as adolescents it delivers the abilities to contribute meaningfully to society; and as young adults it can deliver advanced knowledge to bring about innovation and societal progression. Education is progressive by its very nature; you cannot build the space shuttle before learning your times tables or even learning how to interact socially; the reason why the formative years are so aptly named.
The Government has set criteria for schooling following the much publicised “bubble” principle. Whereby, guided by the science, school class sizes are reduced to a maximum of 15. With average class sizes in England being at 27 this means, on the face of it, there would not be enough teachers or real estate to educate children. But we should not accept this as fait accompli.
For the individual, a Swedish study, found that absence does have a significant effect on average grades in the short term. Whilst studies have yet to prove long term effects conclusively, the penalty, in the labour market, for absences is most profound in those aged 25-30 – precisely the age that most young adults in the UK are beginning the high growth phase of their career.
For society, education not only produces skilled individuals, but also has secondary effects. Education provides a safe environment for children to learn how to interact successfully. Crucially it allows parents of children to be as economically active as possible, whilst school provides a form of secondary childcare. Caring for children at home, whilst attempting to tutor them and be productive at work must lead to a trade-off, most likely in the latter.
With social injustice also so prevalent in the recent news it would also be amiss to ignore the impact that an education vacuum has on the disadvantage gap in England which closed by around ten per cent between 2011 and 2019 – a phenomenal effort from Government and teaching staff. We are now in danger of undoing all that good work. 60 per cent of private schools and 37 per cent of state schools in the most affluent areas versus only 23 per cent of state schools in more deprived areas had the advantage of extra resources beforehand, including online learning portals, which gave them a structural head start. Whilst data is still scarce, in the first week of home schooling (beginning 23 March) pupils from middle class homes were twice as likely to be taking part in daily live or recorded lessons as those from working class households (30 per cent compared to 16 per cent) and with around 50 per cent participation from private schools. The bottom line is that the loss of in-person learning or, at least, supervision could lead to a significant widening of the disadvantage gap once again.
However, we remain fixed by the “bubble” principle. Whilst the Department of Education provides the grand strategy, there are ways councils can step up and take the initiative. A shining example is Wandsworth. Consistently able to deliver value for money for residents, Wandsworth Council has continued its impressive, pragmatic approach to education in its nine-point plan. Three points stand out as innovative.
Firstly, making parks and outside spaces free of charge for schools to use will encourage outdoor learning during the most appropriate months of the year. This new environment also lowers the already low risk to children and teachers of the virus. Making unused council building space available to schools will allow those whose real estate is already tight to expand into a greater space further enhancing safety and allowing greater flexibility to staff and students. Finally, by providing free mental health services to teachers during this period, the council can promote a happier and healthier educational environment. We should remember it is our teachers, heroic even in normal times, who will be facing the additional pressure of explaining complex issues to children, having to enforce unnatural social distancing at times and who genuinely care about the educational welfare of their pupils not being fulfilled to the highest extent.
Whilst not all councils will have the resources of Wandsworth, or necessarily the same micro issues as a London Borough, the broader point is that innovative solutions are needed from all local authorities who are empowered to provide a conducive educational environment.
At the beginning of this crisis, the Government, both centrally and locally, was rightly focussed on its impact on the lives of the public. We saw the huge national effort which has led to a significant increase in NHS capacity, the procurement of much needed ventilators, economic measures which have run into the hundreds of billions of pounds, and a relentless focus on trying to control the spread of the virus. Now it is time to think of the longer term impact. The economic recovery will take many months to get back to pre-crisis levels and years to realign into a more immune position. The educational impact on this nation will last quite possibly for almost a century.
Previous monikers for generations have included “the greatest” and “the silent”. We must innovate if we are to prevent “the lost generation” entering the lexicon of the future.