Since the middle of the last century, generations have taken it for granted that their children would exceed their own successes. Providing opportunities is one of our duties to those who inherit our society and education lies at the heart of that. We want our young people to be better educated, more skilled and go on to have greater experiences in the workplace. Now, however, the Covid-19 pandemic risks undermining this fundamental principle and leaving the youth of today with bleaker educational and employment prospects than those that came before them. The fallout from this worrying phenomenon could last for the next decade.
Earlier this week we were heard troubling news that 5% of schoolchildren are still not in school due to pandemic-related reasons. These are the same schoolchildren who did not receive a single minute of face-to-face teaching for nearly half a year. Already finding themselves in educational deficit compared to previous generations, the latest figures show thousands more are falling further and further behind. Whilst the focus is understandably on the here and now, the long-term consequences for the “Covid generation” look at best concerning and at worse catastrophic. We risk opening up a major intergenerational gap in terms of the educational divide between wealthier and poorer children as a result of the pandemic.
According to the Edge Foundation, the consequences of all the missed teaching, months out the classroom and gaps in children’s education could lead to youth unemployment rising above a staggering 1 million in the UK in the years to come. We can be in no doubt that the poorest children whose education has been hit hardest will bear the brunt of this. We face the very real prospect of swathes of young people going from school to further education to unemployment. As is so often the case with youth unemployment, it will be factors outside of their control that determine many young people’s prospects. It will be purely down to the lottery of life and the misfortune of being in education in the middle of a pandemic that could do real harm to future prosperity.
Preventing the worst of these outcomes from coming to pass must be society’s number one priority. There is not only a moral imperative but also and economic incentive, with the OECD estimating a future 1.5% reduction in GDP as a result of disruption to education. However, we must not consider this eventuality as set in stone.
We need to shift our gaze towards the horizon and the coming years, rather than months, ahead. Essentially, a period of “educational catch-up” is required that could take any number of forms, including longer school terms, greater extra-curricular activity and more avenues for young people to develop a variety of skills. One suggestion could be a significant ramping up of technical education, ensuring young people have greater options for skilling up towards a particular career path. Another could be the provision of “catch up classes” delivered by former teachers who I have no doubt would answer the call in the thousands, as we saw with nurses and healthcare.
We must recognise and act upon the uniquely disadvantaged position the Covid generation finds itself and provide a tailored response. As a society we have remedied the arbitrary nature of the pandemic in terms of employment by introducing the furlough scheme. In principle, our approach to education must be no different, recognising the unique and entirely arbitrary difficulties thousands of young people now find themselves in.
The research also bears out the disproportionate educational impact the pandemic is having on the worst off. The Education Policy Institute found that those from disadvantaged backgrounds were approximately 1.5 years behind in learning compared to their wealthier counterparts. Furthermore, it seems inevitable that this gap has widened. Remedial action must be focused on these children as a priority. If the worst-off children are set back further as a result of the pandemic then it will be a profound failing on our part.
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The school gates have now finally re-opened, that major hurdle has at least been overcome, but what comes next? This must be our top priority. We cannot simply assume that having children back in school has finally set things back on track, that is only the start. A lost decade for generation Covid would be a shameful legacy to leave. We must now implement a “catch up strategy” aimed at reducing the education deficit through targeted technical education and greater extra-curricular provision.
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.