Covid-19 shines a light on 'searing inequality'

Written by: Dr Patrick Roach | Published:
Dr Patrick Roach, general secretary, NASUWT

The coronavirus pandemic has exposed the searing inequality in our education system. Dr Patrick Roach says that post-lockdown we need bold measures and a new deal for our young people and their teachers...

We should all agree that every child deserves the best start in life and that education is the key to improving life chances and in tackling inequality and injustice in society. And, to complete a trio of clichés, we may all say that no child should be left behind.

More than 50 years ago, the government was convinced that much more needed to be done to address the impact of social and economic inequality. The 1967 Plowden Report introduced the concept of education priority areas, recognising that government had a responsibility to take the lead in rooting out inequality and ensuring that those who had the least in life received the most in terms of public investment in education.

With a clear and unapologetic strategy to invest disproportionately in schools and the workforce teaching children and young people living in the most disadvantaged areas of the country, government could make clear its commitment that the status quo simply would not do.

Yet, more than 50 years on, and against a political backdrop of Westminster government policy to create a level playing field in the funding of schools, we are once again talking about the need for action to tackle educational inequality and how we can meet the needs of disadvantaged children.

During the period of unprecedented restrictions placed on schools opening as a result of coronavirus emergency measures, the government quite rightly set up a scheme intended to ensure that children in receipt of free school meals did not go without.

While recognising the speed with which the government was tasked with finding a solution to this issue, the system has been beset with glitches which has resulted in many families being unable to use the vouchers they had been given and schools having to step in to fund and deliver their own provision to ensure children did not go hungry.

Similarly, the shift to remote learning has exposed the digital divide for pupils, with those from lower income families or who live in areas poorly served by broadband infrastructure most likely to miss out on access to online lessons and learning resources, putting them at a disadvantage in terms of access to learning.

Again, while the government has pledged laptops and 4G routers for pupils, there remain concerns that these devices will not reach all those pupils who need them.

More broadly, we see reflected in the daily statistics and personal stories of those who have died, become seriously ill or who are facing perilous financial circumstances. the lie that coronavirus does not discriminate. We know that if you are Black or from a minority ethnic background you are more likely to die from Covid-19, that those in precarious and insecure employment, including supply teachers, are likely to fare worst financially, that families in overcrowded and unsafe accommodation are likely to be more vulnerable to Covid-19. The impact of this virus is discriminatory, as it is amplifying and exacerbating existing inequalities.

Tackling searing social, economic and educational inequality with measures to support the poorest children is essential, but not if doing so contributes to widening health inequalities and decreased life expectancy for the poorest children, their families and communities, or if they are placed at increased risk of contracting the coronavirus. That is why we have remained committed to working with employers to press for schools to be re-opened when it is safe to do so and in a way that minimises the risk to all staff and pupils.

That is why we have kept up the pressure on government and are continuing to do so and why we have been clear that the health and safety of pupils and staff must come first.

The coronavirus has impacted disproportionately adversely on the poorest. But, it would be a highly regressive measure to insist that the poorest children be put in harm’s way by opening schools without all steps being taken to minimise risk and safeguard pupils and their teachers.

We need a new deal for children, young people and their teachers, one that is based on ending the wider inequalities that still largely determine access to educational opportunities, educational outcomes and future life chances.

This coronavirus crisis is shining a light on the searing inequalities that beset our education system and the country as a whole. The answer lies in governments recognising that they have to invest much, much more now, and in the future, to end inequality within our schools and in the wider social and economic sphere.

Now is not the time for more clichés, we need real change, with bold measures, which will benefit today’s children and the generations to come.

  • Dr Patrick Roach is general secretary of the NASUWT.


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