Our minds are currently all focused on the immediate crisis, as Covid-19 keeps spreading. But as each day passes, the attainment gap widens and the aching inequality between our children reinforces the disadvantages they already face.
There is another crisis waiting for us in September. If schools don't reopen until the beginning of the new academic year, the current Year 11 pupils will have faced six months outside of formal education. They may be feeling angered by the predicted grade they have been given. After all, who would be happy being predicted to be a "failure"? During this time, knowledge will be lost and opportunities will be limited as the economy hurts the apprenticeship system. And, of course, it is impossible to quantify the emotional cost if children suffer bereavement or see parents lose employment or businesses.
Coronavirus: Employers urge DfE to protect FE sector
Against this background, the government must prepare a universal intervention in September to ensure that these students do not become one of the growing Neet (not in employment, education or training) statistics.
Coronavirus: Delay Ofsted and T levels
This is why I support the call from the Association of Colleges to delay Ofsted inspections until 2021 to give colleges the breathing space required. Colleges that are being supported by the FE commissioner need that to continue without an unrealistic expectation of business as usual. This is not the time to be placing new demands and expectations on colleges.
I have urged the minister to delay the roll-out of T levels. As they currently stand, they fail to provide the equality of opportunity offered by other courses. This is due to the fundamental design flaw requiring the 45-day work placement to be industry-specific and local.
This crisis gives the government the chance to pause and get T levels right by having a radical solution to industry placements. They should, for example, work with universities based near specific industries.
There are actions that the government must address now. While I welcome the decision to allow apprentices to be furloughed on the national minimum wage, more must be done to protect independent training providers if we want apprentices still to be available in September. As I have said previously, the government must look at fully funding 16- to 18-year-old apprentices from the general education budget.
The 16-year-olds who are assessed as "failing" their GCSE maths and English will be far from ready to resit their exams the following summer.
It appears that the government has four choices: it can continue as usual and expect that because of the six months' absence from formal education the number of pupils passing will be much lower; it could request Ofqual to adjust the grade boundaries; it could scrap its policy; or it could have a fully-funded system of universal intervention.
Knowing the current education ministers, I cannot see them wishing to scrap this policy. They must look, therefore, at universal intervention.
The universal intervention must include mentoring and tutor support on a one-to-one basis for all students. This universal intervention must be more than just academic support but instead intensive support and guidance to give all students the best possible chance of catching up and making the right choices. Additional funding must be made available for colleges to use in the best way for their students. For example, they could use agencies like Tutor Teach where an undergraduate offers regular support to a maximum of three pupils, and the many other similar schemes and agencies available.
The government must do more to remove the barriers of disadvantage. These include providing a national solution to the problem young people face regarding IT equipment and connectivity – resources must be provided to students so they can access learning at home.
But it doesn’t stop there – there also needs to be support with transport costs for 16- to 18-year-olds, grants for equipment and learning resources, and free childcare for young mums. These are vital to prevent a lost year group.
As the shadow minister for FE, HE, apprenticeship and skills, I will continue to offer constructive recommendations on how they can do this.
Emma Hardy is Labour's shadow minister for FE and HE