Covid-19 has shone a harsh spotlight on issues that have gone unaddressed for too long. The pandemic has presented this government with a once-in-a-generation opportunity to truly level up education across the country.
To do this, we need a fundamental shift in thinking, from cure to prevention. The current narrative of short-term catch-up is a worrying sign that things could be moving in the wrong direction.
For years, our education system has been dominated by short-term thinking, which mitigates against the interests of the poorest children. Watching developments in the news, it is difficult to envy the role of ministers in the current crisis. Almost every part of our economy and society is asking the government to go further and quicker to support them, and the list of demands is getting longer all the time.
Much of what we are seeing from the Department for Education is a reaction to the immediate challenges created by the partial closure of schools. From the provision of laptops to tutoring support, there are well-intentioned efforts to support the most disadvantaged children.
Coronavirus catch-up plans: Money spent in the wrong places
But too often this betrays an overly simple understanding of the extent and nature of deprivation and its impact on education. The attainment gap did not begin with Covid; nor will it disappear when the immediate crisis goes away.
Currently, huge sums of public money are being spent in the wrong places in education, attempting to compensate or correct for educational failure, rather than to prevent it.
The increasing rate of exclusions from school in many disadvantaged areas is a prime example. Most excluded children have unmet needs. And yet early, preventative support is often not available, because of a lack of appropriate resources and, sometimes, insufficient training in schools.
The best school leaders in disadvantaged areas are not clamouring for intensive, academic programmes in the first week that schools reopen. Instead, they are focusing on how they can reintegrate children in ways that support their long-term needs – socially, emotionally and academically.
Schools are places of safety, belonging, connection and learning. Just as nursing isn't all about medicine, teaching isn't all about the curriculum.
There will be some students who need significant support to readjust to the routines and expectations of school when they reopen fully. The more pressure is heaped on schools to deliver rapid academic catch-up programmes, the more likely it is that large numbers of students and teachers will struggle to cope.
Resource and support our teachers properly – now
We must ensure that schools are supported to meet the full range of students’ needs on their return to school. Without this, we risk a huge spike in exclusions, which will cost the system far more in the long run, and squeeze any funds available for preventative support down the line.
In recent years, many talented teachers and school leaders have been driven from the profession by a combination of high workload and low morale, underpinned by an accountability system that rewards and punishes the wrong schools.
Many more teachers were teetering on the brink even before Covid hit. If we do not resource and support our teachers properly now, we risk losing a generation of our best school leaders from the places that need them most.
The real divide in our country is not between North and South, but between rich and poor. Long-term deprivation is not something schools can be expected to overcome without a long-term strategy to tackle the issues at source.
No one seriously contends that health inequalities are a result of poor performing GPs or hospitals, and yet this is precisely the narrative we have allowed in education. Those of us who know this have a duty to say so.
If we allow a return to business as usual when schools reopen, I fear huge numbers of the most vulnerable children will end up being excluded from schools that are unable to meet their underlying needs. And many teachers will be driven from a profession that no longer enables them to prioritise the things that matter most.
At the current trajectory, Covid will create ever-expanding budget pressures in education just as public finances are coming under unprecedented strain.
If we can help schools to better diagnose of the needs of children, and give them the long-term resources they require to address them, then our education system has a chance of emerging from this crisis stronger than before. If not, then we are risking far more than next year’s exam results.
Fiona Spellman is CEO of SHINE, a charity that works to raise attainment for disadvantaged children in the North of England