Our kids have simply been cut adrift by school closures – with devastating consequences for their education

My teenage daughters are in Years 9 and 11. In normal circumstances, the younger of the two would be laying the foundations for her GCSE exams – the backbone of any pupil’s plans for the future. My eldest, meanwhile, would be about to sit them.

Yet neither of my daughters has stepped past the school gates in almost two months; nor will they do so until September.

That is a tragedy.

I have nothing but respect for the teachers in their school – many of whom I hope are keen to get back into the classroom and have made a valiant effort to keep children learning online.

But teachers know virtual learning is no substitute for the everyday rhythms and thrust of school life – the conversations with friends, the interactions with teachers, the classroom dynamics that provide children with a sense of being part of a community.

So let’s not be fooled by the shrill voices of the teaching unions into thinking this situation is beneficial for teachers and their pupils.

The National Education Union argues that a return to school in June would be ‘reckless’. But what is really reckless is its willingness to consign tens of thousands of children to almost five months without formal schooling.

Naturally, any return to classrooms should be monitored and precautions such as social distancing should be taken where necessary. But leaving our children without an education – when countries such as Denmark have indicated that schools can be safely opened – is simply not an option.

For if our children’s mass expulsion from the classroom has taught us anything, it’s the crucial role played by schools in socialising our young people, and providing their lives with structure and meaning.

Now all that has gone. Our children have been cut adrift from the norms and expectations that have framed their lives from the age of four. And they have also been cut off from each other.

We should not underestimate how devastating this could be – and how much we will struggle to return to school life in September.

Pupils like my eldest daughter, working towards GCSEs and A-levels, were told these exams would determine the rest of their lives. All of a sudden, they don’t matter.

Younger children and their parents have been constantly reminded of the importance of attending school every day. Now, having five months off is absolutely fine. Yet such a chasmic break in a child’s education is not acceptable for anybody. It’s not acceptable for primary pupils, for whom school offers a first chance to learn about the world beyond their family.

Nor is it acceptable for parents who now have to make the difficult decision between prioritising work or time with their children.

And it’s certainly not acceptable for pupils from deprived backgrounds, who don’t have a computer or a good Wi-Fi connection, or whose families aren’t able to pay for additional resources or tutors to help their kids catch up later.

For many of these children, education is a ladder to opportunity – one that’s now been cruelly taken away.

As a sociologist, I am all too familiar with educational inequalities. Even in ‘normal’ times, children from better-off backgrounds do better in school because their families can top up the resources offered by state education.

With children from less wealthy backgrounds evacuated from education for five months, I dread to think of the level of inequality we will see when they return.

Meanwhile, let’s not forget that many teachers are already in schools, providing a skeleton service for those few children currently allowed to be there.

Does the NEU think that they are being ‘reckless’ too, for daring to do their jobs?

Such a suggestion is an insult to those heroic teachers on the front line, as well as to their countless brave colleagues desperate to step in and support them.

Of course, we mustn’t ignore the concerns of those teachers who have health problems that put them more at risk.

But many are young, healthy, and keen to get back. And from my experience, teachers are a brave bunch. After all, it takes guts and commitment to take on a class of feral five-year-olds or surly Year 10s.

Ultimately, education is a moral project. It is about showing our responsibility, as adults, to the next generation – helping them to understand the world and their place in it.

This is particularly important in times of crisis. If we give up on the kids now, the consequences will be huge.

First published by The Daily Mail, 16 May 2020.


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