In June, a letter from the NEU councillors’ network to government pointed out that the issues facing families in poverty were not created during the Covid-19 crisis and will not be solved without a long-term recovery plan. At the start of 2020, a third of children in the UK – 4.2 million children – were trapped in poverty. Research indicates that as the effects of lockdown and recession take hold, a further 200,000 children will be in poverty by Christmas. The Education Policy Institute report (26 August 2020) suggests that efforts to close the ‘disadvantage gap’ in England have stalled, and that the gap is in fact widening. It is children in long term poverty who are hit hardest.
Although schools worked tirelessly, the lockdown impacted disadvantaged pupils most. Bringing all children back to school is vital, but broadcasting reassuring adverts is not the same as providing a clear plan for a safe return. Although NEU continues to press government for an education recovery plan, as yet there is no such plan. Here are four key issues still unaddressed:
Our school estate is woefully inadequate for the kind of social distancing or enhanced hygiene needed at this time. Classrooms, corridors and stairways are small, ventilation patchy, toilets and basins too few and too smelly even in normal times. The Government rejected our suggestion that public buildings could be used to expand the available space, but has done nothing to improve the situation. With large pupil ‘bubbles’ the norm, infection could close year groups or whole schools, and will need a local response.
In the longer term, it is painfully obvious that extra money is needed to make our school buildings and outdoor spaces fit for education, especially as numbers increase in secondary.
Many school staff are concerned about the safety of their workplaces. Some feel vulnerable or live with people at risk. Some will have resigned. NEU called for a plan to bring back qualified teachers, and to employ centrally Newly Qualified Teachers, to fill vacancies, provide long term cover and reduce class sizes. Locally, systems to support and deploy supply teachers are also vital, as well as clear safety guidance for those who work across different schools, particularly providing SEND support.
The system was already struggling to retain teachers, and to recruit school leaders. Staff need their concerns taken seriously, rather than Prime Ministerial calls to duty, if we are to avoid deepening the retention crisis.
Pupils want lessons to feel ‘normal’, but most have missed over a term of school, and their engagement with learning hasn’t been evenly distributed. Teachers are planning for a much wider range of learners, many with mental health issues, with fewer resources available, and changes to the ways they can teach. They will now be supporting pupils in the aftermath of exam chaos, while also working out how to integrate online and face-to-face learning. Some pupils have got out of the habits of learning, routines, and school behaviours. Schools will need to find a balance between punishment, exclusion and support, helped by local behaviour support teams. Pupils and families who find it hardest to return will need local support and guidance, rather than condemnation.
The NEU’s education plans focus on care, creativity, and connection. The ‘new normal’ cannot be a rush back to a curriculum dominated by test and exam preparation. Pupil wellbeing must be central.
This pandemic made very public the impacts of poverty on children’s learning. Schools played a key role in local communities, providing food, supporting IT, delivering books and other resources to families in need. In September, they need to be able to focus on their main purpose of educating and, mindful of their continuing role at the front line of poverty, they need the support of locally coordinated LA services. In order to support the most disadvantaged, and to close the education gaps, we need to eradicate poverty. Schools cannot do that. The NEU councillors’ network called on government to provide help to those living in poverty, including digital poverty, and to develop a plan for employment, training and benefits.
Schools went the extra mile during lockdown, to teach and to provide community support in ways never done before. It’s time for Government to recognise that commitment and to provide the extra support necessary to rebuild stronger for the economy, for the community, and for children’s future.