Educational Disadvantage

With many schools in England apparently in danger of crumbling around or upon pupils, the start of the new school year offers the potential, once again, of being disrupted for thousands of pupils. Since the start of the pandemic in March 2020, generations of students have been impacted in ways it is hard to imagine won’t resound through the rest of their life.

This year’s A Level results combined the cohort who had not taken their GCSE exams with the retightening of grading.  (I am only writing about England, although similar implications to what follows are likely to be felt around all of the UK.) For many this will have been a disastrous combination, and teachers’ predictions have been shown often to be wide of the mark under the new grading guidelines. I think everyone understands in the abstract this group of students have not had it easy, although how that understanding will translate as their lives progress, be it at university or not, is far from clear.

However, the impact of the pandemic will not now miraculously disappear from all future schoolchildren working their way up the school ladder and, just as with future career progression for staff within universities who had to cope with pandemic fall-out, I worry the inequalities that the pandemic imposed on children living under different family circumstances, will propagate throughout their lives. If you missed the best part of a year of formal schooling just as you were beginning to learn to read, but are then presumed by the system to be a competent reader at 8, you may find yourself struggling to cope with all lessons thereafter. Will that be remembered when you sit GCSE’s in eight years time? If you and your four siblings were all squabbling over who had access to the single mobile device for your lessons, that will be an entire family whose learning will have been thrown into disarray. But will any allowance be subsequently made? What happened to all the extra tuition promised, given that much of the money has not been spent?

Those comments refer simply to the formal education that being present in a classroom might confer, but probably just as important is the disruption to a child’s developing social interactions. To be unable to mix with other children for extended periods is likely to have affected the development even of toddlers at the time, just when they were starting to understand a sense of self. Obviously, for adolescents the loss of opportunity to see friends in real life situations, rather than as a small face on a screen, will have done nothing for their own identities or ability to handle social situations. Of whatever age, I think adults too have exhibited many different manifestations of social unease from the repercussions of our long seclusion. It seems to me, in my own circle, that the after-effects of the pandemic are still very much in evidence. Everything from how often someone is expected to turn up at their place of work rather than work from home, to the use of Zoom and its like to running committee meetings, the world has changed. Sometimes I believe it has changed permanently in ways that are going to be detrimental to decision-making for all of us.

Amongst all the existential crises the world currently faces, social unease in the population is perhaps hardly top of the list of things to worry about. On the other hand, consequences of the loss of talent that poor ability to access education during the critical years of child development is something the country (and, of course, much more widely) should be very concerned about. It is something we will all have to face for an extended period. I worry people’s memories will be short. Those who had no trouble accessing online learning may not recognize the disadvantage peers may have had to contend with. The concept of excellence, of the A* star pupil who shone on the day of exams and fulfilled their teacher’s predictions, means those who come out on top may believe they are inherently superior to the kid from down the road whose educational experience was utterly different. I’m not sure what can be done about this, but I do hope people will ensure their memories are long enough to recall this societal disruption and how it has further entrenched inequality for too many in the next generation.

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