The Times view on disadvantaged schoolchildren falling behind: Class Divide

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To read the full Times Article, published in September 2020, click here.

Catch-up schemes for disadvantaged pupils need to be introduced nationally

Traditionally only Britain’s public schools subject children to the peculiar punishment of Saturdays in the classroom. It is a measure of the disruption caused by the coronavirus pandemic that some schools in the state sector now feel impelled to follow suit. This week the Harris Federation, one of Britain’s biggest academy trusts, is launching a programme of Saturday schools to help to redress the inequalities that blighted schools before lockdown and have been exacerbated by the closures it wreaked upon the sector. It is time for ministers to show similar initiative nationally.

The Harris Federation’s 49 schools, dotted in and around London, are among the most successful in the country. Fundamentally, however, the story of their 2020 is no different from any state establishment. When most children were sent home from classrooms, they introduced a rigorous programme of online teaching. Yet, as elsewhere, it was not enough to prevent the gulf between the most disadvantaged pupils and their peers from widening. This problem is all the more acute for those in their final year of primary school or those staring down the barrel of their GCSEs. Thanks to a generous £2 million donation from a private benefactor, those most at risk of joining a lost generation of schoolchildren will now benefit from an extra day of teaching. It is desperately needed.

There is much to applaud about the Harris academies, whose success vindicates the willingness of successive governments to think laterally and undogmatically about state education. They are engines of innovation and social mobility. Lamentably, however, a far greater number of comprehensives boast neither such stellar records nor access to donors with deep pockets. For only a few schools in the state sector to provide their pupils with the intensive help so many now require would create fresh inequality itself. What is needed is a national government programme to ensure that children make up as much lost ground as possible by this summer — before a round of GCSEs and A-levels that threatens to be just as traumatic as the last if ministers do not act quickly.

Local initiatives aside, there is scant evidence that Gavin Williamson, the education secretary, has such a plan. In June the prime minister promised that disadvantaged pupils in England would be driven back to speed by a “huge catch-up” programme of extra tutoring. Yet it has since emerged that the tutors promised at a cost of some £350 million will not arrive in schools until November at the earliest. Some children will have to wait until spring. It is no wonder that head teachers fret that there are simply too few qualified tutors to serve the hundreds of thousands in need of extra help. Meanwhile Mr Williamson has yet to say whether next year’s exams will be delayed, and rising rates of infection in schools suggest that a battle to prevent closures lies ahead.

To subject the youngest generation to another year of educational purgatory violates the most basic societal duty of any government. But all is not lost. At the outset of the pandemic, retired doctors returned to the NHS en masse. Teachers, too, are public servants motivated by a desire to serve the common good. Mr Johnson and Mr Williamson should heed calls from their MPs to draft retirees, Ofsted inspectors and graduates into classrooms to help schools to stay open longer before the month is out. Anything less would be another betrayal of Britain’s children.

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