Today’s Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) report warns the government that failure to act on lost learning will translate into reduced productivity, lower incomes, lower tax revenues, higher inequality and potentially expensive social ills. The report’s suitably eye-catching and simple headline calculation is that school pupils have lost six months of learning, so a £1 billion catch-up fund is woefully insufficient compared with the £30 billion that governments across the UK spend on the school budget in half-a-year.
For colleges, the headline figures are not so big, but equally alarming, with £3.5 billion lost for 16- to 19-year-olds, compared with the £96 million allocated for catch-up tutoring support this academic year. That excludes the £1 billion for apprenticeships and the £750 million for adult learners who have no catch-up support allocated at all.
Despite the speed and effectiveness of colleges’ shift to online, lost learning will have affected every learner to some extent and in similar ways to schools. But there are three overlapping factors in colleges that should increase our concerns – digital poverty, higher numbers of lower-level learners and practical courses.
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Digital poverty affects around 100,000 16- to 19-year-olds in colleges, and unknown numbers of adults and apprentices. Devices funded by the government are now being delivered and internet access set up, which will help greatly, but the very presence of these new devices now underlines their absence for 11 months of pandemic across three lockdowns. Add to this the simple lack of a safe, secure, quiet, warm working space for many young people at home and it is easy to see how widespread lost learning really is.
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Having a device, internet access and space is a must to participate fully in remote learning, but they are far from sufficient. Lots of factors come into play in remote learning more than in face-to-face teaching - being able to focus, having the digital skills and learning skills, finding the motivation, the self-confidence, the hope. Our survey of colleges last month reported big increases in mental health problems for students suffering isolation, loneliness and hopelessness. These factors come into play for lots of learners, but we are particularly worried about those on lower-level courses who may have progressed to college last summer. Their needs for catch-up were strong then but will have been compounded during a hugely disrupted first couple of terms.
For around 150,000 students taking practical subjects, the picture is even more stark. Would you trust a plumber taught only online? How safe is the arboriculturist in using a chainsaw after online learning? Fancy a dinner from a chef who has not been able to actually cook before? The list could go on. With many weeks of hands-on practice in the workshop, forest or kitchen lost, thousands of students will struggle to become competent in their chosen trade or profession. Their lost learning cannot be made up with more online lessons.
Many students will finish this summer having barely got through their syllabus, with little or no work experience, far fewer hours to practise practical, hands-on skills, and exams and endpoint assessments pared down to nothing or almost nothing. Many students will start further studies in autumn 2021 needing additional support, with others struggling to enter a tough labour market. The promise of summer schools in this context feels wrong – how many teenagers, having been locked down so much for 18 months, will want to study in a summer which has the promise of meeting mates, long summer evenings, having fun and letting your hair down?
What we need is a much more long-term plan with significant catch-up funding to support additional hours of teaching for continuing students, special support for those trying to enter the labour market and a strong focus on students transferring from schools. This is an economic issue, as the IFS has made clear, as well as an educational one. It is also a moral and social issue, with the potential for a lost generation of students struggling to progress in learning and in work.
The chancellor and the education secretary have shown that they recognise the importance of colleges to the Plan for Jobs in the Skills for Jobs White Paper. What we need now is for the March budget to show that they recognise the importance of young people’s education and training to the future of our economy, and just how profound the impact of lost learning could be.
David Hughes is chief executive of the Association of Colleges