The attainment gap was yawning long before Covid-19

Those who argue schools should reopen because of the widening attainment gap often ignore one fact: the conditions driving that gap were generated by austerity, not coronavirus

Mary Bousted

Mary Bousted of the NEU,which has announced that its conference has been cancelled

It’s an ill wind that blows no good. A wise saying which stands up even in the time of the coronavirus.

Because what Covid-19 has brought out of the shadows is the attainment gap between disadvantaged children and their peers.

Much concern has, rightly, been expressed that the partial closure of schools will widen the attainment gap.

So now we have politicians, and commentators of all kinds, arguing that schools should re-open as soon as possible so that disadvantaged children do not fall further behind.

The protagonists for these arguments come a little unstuck when faced with some fairly basic questions. What is their alternative to lockdown, in the absence of any community testing and contact tracing, as the means of suppressing the virus? If social distancing is the only way we have, at present, of suppressing viral transmission, how will schools manage to keep their pupils two metres apart throughout the school day?

I must admit that I am surprised that many of those who are arguing for an early re-opening of schools are the same people who have overseen, or vocally supported, years of austerity which have led to an increase in child poverty. Because one thing is clear, the poorer children are, the greater the hurdles they face in order to achieve their potential.

Some 4.1 million children in the UK were born into poverty in 2017-18. This means that nine children in every class of 30 are poor

Shocking, isn’t it? Even more shocking is that child poverty rates were rising before the onslaught of Covid-19.

Where was your concern before?

So, I have a question for those politicians who voted for, and those commentators who supported, the austerity measures that led to punitive and cruel outcomes for disadvantaged children – including the two-child cap on child benefit and the five-week delay to the first payment of universal credit.

Where was your concern then about the rise in child poverty and (following hard on its heels) the rise in the disadvantage attainment gap?

Where was your concern when you defended school budgets falling by 8 per cent and local authority budgets by 40 per cent in the years of austerity? When libraries and youth clubs closed? When the services that teachers relied on to help vulnerable children – like Camhs, and speech and language therapy, and English as a Second Language support, were cut to the bone or disappeared? When Sure Start was decimated?

Where were you then? And if you supported these measures, with what moral authority do you now express concern about poor children and their attainment?

Child poverty survey

In its most recent survey on child poverty, the NEU teaching union’s members overwhelmingly told us that they were seeing more children and young people suffering the effects of poverty in their schools and colleges. Their reports of the scale and extent of children’s suffering were harrowing:

“Children without coat or with ill-fitting clothes. Children with ill-fitting shoes.”

“Children with ripped shoes, unclean, tired and thin.”

“Also increased mental health issues and inability to access services.”

“Children with bed bug infestations, rats in their homes.”

“Less and less school contributions for trips, events, fundraisers, families getting into debt with school dinner payments.”

“They just don’t have the money at home and they’re telling us like it’s normal. It’s so sad.”

The big lie that has been visited upon teachers and leaders during the last decade is that education alone can transform children’s lives. That it does not matter how poor children are, how unequal our society, how blighted their lives, all that is needed is a knowledge rich curriculum that gives our children the powerful knowledge to access all that society has to offer.

The extent of this lie is uncovered with just one fact: 40 per cent of the educational attainment gap that poor children are burdened with is created before they even start school.

The combination of cramped, low-quality housing, impoverished parents and carers, poor nutrition, narrow leisure and cultural opportunities, creates a poverty prison that only the most able, or the luckiest, are able to escape from.

And schools who work with these children face vilification from a toxic accountability system because they cannot make up such a huge gap, however hard they try.

So I am very heartened to learn that the attainment gap is now such a force in political debate and education policymaking.

I am always glad when repentant sinners see the error of their ways.

And perhaps, after the crisis, the outlook for our poorest children will change.

After all, we know how to reduce child poverty rates. They fell dramatically between 1998 and 2010 when 800,000 children were lifted out of poverty through real increases in the amount of money in real terms, and as a share of national income, spent on benefits and tax credits for families with children.

We will need similar, and stronger, policies to tackle child poverty and disadvantage in a post-Covid world. Schools cannot do it on their own – however hard they try. And let no one forget that they try their utmost.

Register to continue reading for free

It only takes a moment and you'll get access to more news, plus courses, jobs and teaching resources tailored to you

Latest stories