The government risks widening the education attainment gap further if it fails to get children back to school safely.
Labour has consistently argued that the government needs to prioritise reopening schools safely, amid concerns that lockdown is causing disadvantaged students to fall further behind their peers.
In fact, a report published this week by the Education Policy Institute (EPI) found that attainment gap between disadvantaged pupils and their peers has stopped closing for the first time in a decade.
Disadvantaged pupils in England are 18.1 months of learning behind their peers by the time they finish their GCSEs – the same gap as five years ago – while the gap at primary school increased for the first time since 2007.
The stalling of the attainment gap occurred even before the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted schools, but research suggests that lockdown will have further widened the divide.
We need to see children back in school – the impact, particularly on the most disadvantaged, has already been too great. But parents and teachers alike must have confidence that it is safe to do so.
We therefore need to see better availability of PPE for staff, clearer guidance and minimum standards instead of the vague and unclear language that has been handed down so far that provides little protection.
Ahead of the beginning of the new term, the government can take some simple measures to reassure parents, teachers, and children that schools are safe. The Prime Minister should:
- Introduce regular testing of teachers and possibly pupils – especially in secondary schools
- Make face coverings compulsory in communal areas in all secondary schools
- Give schools access to local infection data, so they understand issues in their area
- And, most importantly, bring test and trace up to scratch.
The government has u-turned so many times on schools and education it’s little wonder parents don’t have confidence. But the government still has time to get this right and rescue the future of an entire generation of young people.