Echoes Down the Years of Education in a Pandemic

Recently, the Prime Minister announced an ‘apprentice guarantee’ saying ‘I think it’s going to be vital that we guarantee apprenticeships’.  Sounds good. How should that be translated into practice? Certainly, at the moment apprentices are having a tough time of it under the conditions of the pandemic, with businesses going under and on-site learning massively disrupted if not impossible in many industries. What might be better in the autumn?

I started to write a blogpost on this, wondering what, if the Government ever finds time to think about it, is going to be done about the Augar Review and Further Education Colleges. Philip Augar himself has written recently, the part of the Report recommending cutting university fees should not happen (at least as he originally suggested) ‘owing to the financial impact of the coronavirus crisis’, but that still leaves wide open all he wrote in his review about further and technical education.

However, the more I thought about it, the more bothered I got by the basic premises. Where should money be expended to make most difference? As I’ve written elsewhere, our current apprentice system does not compare favourably with some other countries. Germany, notably, has a far better system for these intermediate, vocational qualifications. Some of the apprentice schemes on offer currently in the UK really don’t advance careers effectively. However, more than that, most of the useful ones require a certain number of GCSE qualifications.

Then I started reflecting on a child’s early years. Some children are so disadvantaged at school, to achieve such GCSEs is well-nigh impossible without additional – and often not forthcoming – support. For instance, the evidence is there to show just how much difference there is in the fundamental area of vocabulary development, starting from the earliest years, for underprivileged children. A Department for Education’s report shows that by the age of three, the most disadvantaged children are already about 1 1/2 years behind more affluent children, and at five years around 40% of disadvantaged children have not reached the expected literacy standard for their age. If you don’t learn to read at the expected time, school life thereafter is bound to be a struggle and – almost certainly – unappealing. Education is not going to feel as if it’s ‘for you’. These early years are a vital foundation for everything that comes thereafter.

There are exceptions of course, people who manage to catch up despite appalling early years’ experience. Think of the extraordinary story of Tara Westover, documented in her book Educated, that I discussed here. Or the book I’m currently reading by Hashi Mohamed – a Somalian refugee who has become a barrister – People Like Us. A few people ‘make it’ but, as Mohamed spells out, it isn’t just about education but about much wider issues including cultural capital. Nevertheless, without education, much is closed off – although with it, that can still apply. It is for this reason that a college such as my own puts so much work into widening participation (severely limited by the pandemic right now).

Now we are in this cataclysmic pandemic, offering an apprenticeship guarantee is no quick fix for success. However, worse is to come. All the evidence shows that the ability of children in low-income families – maybe only possessing a single smart phone between the entire family and no laptop – to access lessons will have been severely limited. Contrast that with happy families in leafy suburbs whose parents can provide personal laptops with ready broadband, books, conversation….the attainment gap will only widen under these circumstances. The inequality we already can see so manifest is going to get worse. In five or ten years, those children who missed months of schooling and whose parents were in no position to home-school effectively or – through no fault of their own – enable access to what schools themselves may have been attempting to provide, are only too likely to ‘fail’ in all the targets the DfE may choose to set. University will seem an impossible dream, and even an apprenticeship – or at least a useful one – may be beyond their reach. Today’s ONS figures demonstrate how household inequality is growing due to the pandemic, and these figures too will echo down the years. The snapshot of today is not miraculously going to turn around as soon as social distancing ends.

There are so many places of failure in our education system. Universities are of course hugely vulnerable right now, despite the high prestige the UK higher education establishment has traditionally enjoyed. There is no sign of a Government ‘bail-out’ although the importance of scientific research – substantially carried out in university labs – is constantly referred to. If the promised uplift in funding for research and income is both forthcoming and maintained for years to come, where will the scientists, technologists and technicians of the future come through if we’ve lost a generation of talent?

Serious thought needs to be given to the fault lines in access and education the pandemic is exposing and how they can be counteracted in the months and years ahead, even though cash will be so tight. Education, access for all, needs to get much more attention than the odd day for the odd year group. I look at the losses to our present children and fear for their futures.

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