One week after primary and secondary schools finally reopened following a lengthy hiatus since 5 January, young people are tentatively returning to a makeshift landscape with many question marks hanging over it.
The Prime Minister has announced a multimillion-pound catch-up programme for children in England who have faced disruption due to Covid-19.
One particularly sensible aspect of the recovery plan is its strong emphasis on the need to utilise the summer months to make up for lost time.
Of the government’s £700m education support package for England, a one-off £302m “recovery premium” has been allocated for state primary and secondary schools to boost summer schooling, clubs and activities, while £200m has been provided to fund face-to-face secondary summer schools.
The government says it will be up to schools to decide how and if they run summer schools, and how long they will be, with teachers in charge of deciding which pupils would benefit from it the most, potentially starting with those who will be moving up to Year 7 at secondary school this year.
However, we must be conscious of the high likelihood that disparate levels of opportunity provided to young people this summer will serve to further exacerbate the educational attainment gap between rich and poor.
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The one-off recovery premium is ostensibly designed to support and prioritise more disadvantaged pupils, which is of course a hugely laudable initiative. But we mustn’t fool ourselves into thinking it is enough to tackle the disparities which are likely to arise this summer all by itself.
The reality is that summer schools have traditionally been the preserve of the rich, and there is little doubt that well to-do families will be capitalising on their comparative advantage to the maximum over the summer months.
Private summer schools, pitched at the sons and daughters of the global elite, offer an Oxbridge experience at eye-watering prices (some nearly £10,000 for a four-week programme).
According to a 2016 report by the Sutton Trust, students attending UK summer school access schemes were four times more likely to apply to a top university, four times more likely to receive an offer from a top university, and four-and-a-half times more likely to accept the offer. Students who attend the oversubscribed Sutton Trust summer camp are 53 per cent more likely to go to a leading university and 80 per cent more likely to achieve a 2:1 or higher.
In light of the fact that the educational attainment gap between rich and poorer students has increased every year since then, we can safely presume that these trends have continued. In fact, it wouldn’t be a wild extrapolation to posit that summer schools might have played a considerable part in its widening.
This isn’t to bash summer schools. On the contrary, they are excellent vehicles for accelerated advancement. The question is how to improve access – now more than ever. Research from NFER has found that summer schools have the potential to improve access to higher education for disadvantaged pupils. These typically focus on older secondary pupils (around Year 12) and are run by higher education institutions (HEIs), sometimes in partnership with other organisations.
There is another aspect to consider, however. When the same debate over summer schools raged this time last year, the education unions warned – fairly – that pupils needed “nurture, support and respite” over the summer, rather than doing formal lessons, and called for a community effort to draw young people out of their homes and encourage “resocialisation”.
Summer schools should certainly be in the business of striking a balance, offering more than Dickensian rote learning at the expense of a summer holiday. Not just this year, but in the decade to come, we will need to rediscover a culture of summer schools and out-of-school clubs that focus on young people’s holistic development, providing opportunities for sport, socialising and skills training outside of regular term time.
This is the only way to close the widening educational attainment gap between rich and poor, as well as to mitigate the oncoming mental health crisis faced by young people who have endured a crushing lockdown which has in turn diminished their future economic prospects.
Success will require cooperation between the public, private and charitable sectors. The Oxbridge Colleges which normally rent out their august facilities for expensive summer courses might be encouraged to offer subsidised facilities to access courses for disadvantaged students instead.
Charities like mine will do all we can to ensure there is no shortage of supply where there is demand from state schools pupils for summer tuition.
Lastly, the government budget allocated towards summer schools for the disadvantaged should certainly become an annual fixture, not a one-off. This is not after all a one-off problem, but a generational calling.
Nick Maughan is a British investor, philanthropist and founder of the Nick Maughan Foundation, a charity which works to further a range of philanthropic initiatives in education and civic support schemes for disenfranchised communities.