‘When schools are closed, we see deep inequalities become more entrenched, and those from the most disadvantaged backgrounds lose out most’.

This was said by the Shadow Secretary of State for Education, Kate Green, at the end of the A-Level exams fiasco last year. The admission is not unique. Across Europe, governments are realising that the worst off have fallen behind even more following lockdown. But leaders have given very different responses to this concern.

The cost of closing

While Italy and the Netherlands introduced curfews and strict lockdowns in December, other countries opened up in an attempt to soothe wounded economies and address growing worries around education. Britain formally acknowledged an attainment gap and looked set on reopening schools for the new year. But as new strains of the virus swept Europe, a change of heart caught many schools off guard.

Ireland is another economy now dealing with the aftermath of opening up late last year. After closing schools in March 2020, the country struggled to meet the needs of remote student. In response, an infrastructure plan worth £342m was drawn up in July to hurry a return to school by August. The spike in cases around Christmas ultimately delayed full reopening until Easter, but Ireland’s problem runs much deeper than the lockdown. Poor performance cannot be pinned on distance learning per se, but instead a maladaptation to distance learning.

Young people in ‘DEIS’ schools — standing for: Delivering Equality of Opportunity in Schools; a support programme for disadvantaged students in Ireland — have been consistently less engaged in the online classroom thanks to a shortage of school-owned computers for student use. Nearly 30 per cent of Ireland’s poorest students lack a suitable device for online lessons. Whatever Mr Clarkson may say about teachers and iPads, a lack of proper equipment and training hurts the underfunded — schools and students — the most.

Irish children are now back at school. But the problem predates the pandemic and it will outlast it. In the best of times, Ireland struggles to keep disadvantaged students in school and funding has failed to keep up with a growing student population. Likewise, Britain must now address its failure to equip schools with the right resources for learning, with England having cut spending per pupil by 8 per cent in real terms over the last decade. Struggling to adapt to distance learning, the attainment gap between rich and poor grew 46 per cent from its pre-pandemic figure.

Knowing the enemy

There is a separate discussion to be had on the costs and benefits of lockdown itself. But where those costs are manageable with funding, the attainment gap is within our control. As teachers start to reflect on equipment shortages through the pandemic, Westminster would do well to lose the rhetoric that Covid is strictly to blame for the costs of school closures.

Mike Johnston, owner of London-based tutoring agency PiTutor, said:

‘It has been fifteen months and many students are still struggling to adapt to learning online. 

‘This is by no means their fault; all the students I have worked with of all ages pick up online learning remarkably quickly. That is, when they have the right tech to actually engage with the lessons. 

‘As a society, we have failed our children by shutting their schools and failing to provide a large portion of our most vulnerable students with the tools to learn effectively.

‘The problem of digital illiteracy precedes the pandemic. But with the right support and equipment, I am certain there is a strong future for digital learning’.

Fixing the problem

The pattern around Europe is clear. Denmark — one of the first to shut schools last spring — has been investing in digital training in schools for years. As a result, 91 per cent of schools already had an effective online learning platform last March, compared to 66 per cent in the UK and 45 per cent in Ireland. When Covid hit, the country responded by rolling out free digital resources and seamlessly moving exams online. When it mattered, 97 per cent of Denmark’s students from disadvantaged schools had access to a home computer. And as a result, disadvantaged Danish children were some of the least likely in Europe to fall behind last year. The difference is that Denmark spends 7.8 per cent of its GDP on education while the UK and Ireland manage 5.4 per cent and 3.5 per cent respectively.

At the other end of the spectrum is Sweden, which had been the exemplary case study for lockdown scepticism until last December. When Sweden finally closed its schools, the impact on disadvantaged students was minor. Eight-eight per cent of its worst off already had a suitable computer for school and 83 per cent of teachers had effective training on using the right tech. Generous spending on education prepared students and staff for even the most sudden of dives into remote learning.

As the British government rolls out its Lifetime Skills Guarantee and considers the training and resources most needed by its learners, it would do well to also consider the lessons of lockdown: we did not fail because we locked down but because we did not do so properly.

But for now, things are unlikely to change. Only last week, the education recovery commissioner, Sir Kevan Collins, resigned in a row over the meagre £1.4bn cash injection for bringing learners up to speed — a tenth of the projected cost of full recovery, valued at £50 per student.

Kate Green is right that closed schools tend to be worse for society’s poorest. But leaders should also remember that this is largely the result of pre-pandemic politics. If 2020 showed anything, it’s that those who have fared best are the ones who were already prepared for the worst.

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