The release of GCSE and A-level results this past fortnight has confirmed that the attainment gap between disadvantaged and non-disadvantaged children has widened for the third year running, in no small part due to the adverse effects of the lockdown.
All children have had their educational development stultified by the lockdown. However, the evidence is unambiguous that children from more disadvantaged backgrounds have been hardest hit.
Several key studies have pointed to this. In mid-June, the Education Endowment Foundation published a reportwhich attempted to calculate how wide the attainment gap could grow if children are kept out of the classroom until September, which indeed they now will be.
Using evidence gathered from previous school closures – whether caused by strikes, adverse weather conditions or the annual summer vacation – the study suggested that a near six-month closure of schools could lead to an attainment gap of between 11% and 75%, with a median figure of 36%. In effect this could amount to a decade’s worth of gains from education policy being wiped out in less than half a year.
A more recent study, released at the end of July by the Data Evaluation and Learning for Viral Epidemics (DELVE) group, which advises the government, corroborated this view, stating that the achievement gap between the top and lowest-performing pupils in year 3 widened by 52% after lockdown.
The chaos surrounding predicted grades has only compounded the hardship of the disadvantaged. Despite the government u-turn, the much maligned algorithm has still wreaked havoc on the prospects of industrious students from disadvantaged backgrounds, who in many cases have seemingly had their university offers irredeemably revoked.
Moreover, these are not just short-term problems. The DELVE report, titled Balancing the risks of pupils returning to schools, also pointed to the potential long-term effects on pupils’ future career path and earnings potential.
Professor Simon Burgess at the University of Bristol and a lead author on the report, said: “We know how damaging it is for children to miss out on school. The amount of school already missed due to the pandemic could impact on their earning potential by around 3% a year throughout their lives and impact on productivity in the UK for decades.” Elsewhere, the World Bank reckons that this “lost generation” will, collectively, earn $10 trillion less because of the schooling denied to them.
More importantly, the truth is that online learning inherently benefits the advantaged and the high-achieving – put simply, it advantages those living in wealthier homes and attending better schools.
In a survey conducted by academics from Glasgow University, of 704 teachers across the UK, just under 500 agreed that high-attaining students had engaged with online learning. Only 25 teachers felt the same way about poor-performing students.
It was always clear that children were going to have very different experiences depending on where they were educated. Many private schools and some of the best state schools immediately made arrangements for teaching to continue online, uninterrupted. For many other children, it has been a case of being set only the odd homework assignment.
Disadvantaged youths are on course to suffer an incalculable sum of further setbacks, as public debt mounts and employment opportunities dwindle. The experience of the past six months has exacerbated differences in educational conditions for those families without the means to weather the storm.
Last month, I launched the Nick Maughan Foundation, which sponsors a number of scholarships in secondary education in London. Private philanthropy has a bigger role to play in helping bridge this educational divide. The past few months have shown, for example, how a technological divide between wealthier and poorer households can exacerbate educational inequalities. Put simply, richer kids have better computers, tablets, internet connections – all essential tools for distance learning. Philanthropists have the agility to channel resources towards fixing this unfair and arbitrary divide, the impact of which has only recently been thrown into relief.
The same can be said of helping fill the gaps in extra-curricular activities in deprived communities, which have seen these services slashed over the past decade. Enabling children from more deprived backgrounds to take part in out of school hours activities can only help bridge the divide. Resources need to be mobilised towards this end.
Philanthropists, however targeted their approach and the significant difference they can make, cannot do this alone. Only the government has the power to lift all boats and it must start by targeting its resources at ensuring that arbitrary factors, such as uneven access to technology, no longer play such a critical role in a child’s education.
Nick Maughan is an investor and founder of the Nick Maughan Foundation, a philanthropic project aimed at supporting initiatives in education and civic support schemes for disenfranchised communities.