Let’s protect our children’s future

This week, schoolchildren were meant to be returning to the classroom after the Easter break. However, this was not to be, as we continue to be restricted by the Covid-19 pandemic and as such classes must continue to be conducted virtually. Some of the recent media speculation estimates that UK schools could start to reopen on May 11th.

However, despite the hard work of many of our teachers, the lockdown has not been good for the education of our nation’s children. A poll conducted by the Sutton Trust and Public First, and published this week, has suggested that as many as two thirds of school age children have not taken part in online lessons. It still remains to be seen if the BBC’s new Bitesize Daily initiative will help with the lack of participation. To me, I do not think this will make any meaningful difference to the levels of engagement with schoolwork – it is not the celebrity of the faces that makes children engage. It will be a combination of factors that are driving this less than desirable situation.

It is always harder to work at home, as children and as adults. Therefore, while the lockdown situation is novel, parents who would otherwise be working in the office with the children at school now have either to work from home, or unfortunately furloughed or worse, with the added responsibility of marshalling their kids into actually working on schoolwork – as a parent myself I know how hard that can be at the best of times, let alone during the stress of lockdown.

However, we do need to realise that the situation may change now the Easter Holidays have ended. It is entirely possible that it becomes more stable as both parents and their children adapt and settle into the new reality of lockdown, being at home starts to become more normal and, as such it could be that parents are more able to corral their children into buckling down.

There is another schooling question that must also be considered and has been sneaking under the radar at the moment. The lockdown’s affect on the viability of private education in the country. Now this may not be a question that everyone wishes to address and some people on the Left may even celebrate this possibility. But they are mistaken and, in some ways, very unpleasant for doing so.

Roughly five or six privately run schools close or amalgamate every year. This is likely to be higher as the lockdown and Covid-19 bite. Many schools are already reporting drop-offs in parents signing up for the next school term and due to the cash-poor nature of many independent schools it can mean that many will struggle to survive, and others will close. The loss of jobs and incomes for parents has meant that many simply cannot afford to continue even when many schools are actively reducing the cost of fees. On top of this, the lockdown has caused many of them to lose valuable income from holiday letting schemes. Small, vital independent schools just cannot afford to continue.

The closure of a school is almost never to something to celebrate and that schools might close due to circumstances completely beyond their control is even worse. Moreover, given that state schools are already struggling to cope with both the lockdown and already stretched with oversized classes in certain areas, it is not hard to see that an influx of even a small percentage of the country’s 540,000 privately educated pupils could have a devastating knock-on effect to class sizes and the quality of education in the state system. Specialist private schools and private schools with expanded capabilities for children with learning difficulties are even more at risk, and it sadly too often the case that in an expanding state sector those children will simply be lost and not given the education that they require.

Additionally, this is without considering the employment that private schools sustain – people losing their jobs is not pleasant, and the likelihood of finding new employment in what is likely to be a recession will make this situation even worse. Despite what some may claim, it is not simply possible, feasible or desirable for private school teachers to suddenly move into the state system. You have to factor in location, access and suitability for each school and teaching position.

The government needs to be considering and looking carefully at the education of this country, especially the private system. It is not enough to simply lock the country down and then throw many of our schools to the wall. The lockdown may have been necessary, but we must not prolong it any longer than absolutely necessary and schools should be among the first things to reopen, not least because virtual learning cannot replace the experience and environment of a classroom nor the reassuring order of a school schedule. Perhaps the government should consider investing in the future of this country by creating a system of loans that will tide the smaller at-risk schools over until they can get back on their feet. This could create certainty in an uncertain world for parents, children and for those employed by at-risk education establishments.

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