Social justice is a leveller, not coronavirus...

Written by: Geoff Barton | Published:
Geoff Barton, general secretary, Association of School and College Leaders

It has been said that coronavirus is a great leveller, affecting everybody equally. This could not be further from the truth. Geoff Barton says that when this is over we must face up to the fissures that this crisis has exposed

As BBC Newsnight’s Emily Maitlis recently observed: “They tell us coronavirus is a great leveller. It’s not. It’s much, much harder if you’re poor.”

This is true across society. The people who occupy the poorest paid, most insecure jobs, are the most likely to have seen their finances hit badly by the lockdown.

It is also true in our schools. Disadvantaged children already lag behind their wealthier peers. Without the direct daily support of teachers and classroom assistants, and often without the technology to access online resources, the gap will become wider.

That is not a criticism of their parents. They will have been doing their best for their children. But these are adults who very often left school themselves without the academic confidence of the middle class.

And then there are the most vulnerable children. Those who are at risk of abuse or neglect. Officially, they are supposed to be in school as part of emergency provision during the Covid-19 crisis.

In reality, it seems that many are not. Everybody is working hard to reach out to these families and young people to encourage them to attend, but it is a difficult and sensitive situation (SecEd, 2020).

The potential for these young people to suffer physical and psychological damage during the lockdown is terrifying.

What this tells us is two things.

First, is the question of re-opening schools. We are still waiting to see when the government will publish plans on how we will exit this lockdown and the role it expects schools to play in this strategy.

What is clear, however, is that a plan will be needed to maintain social distancing and manage the risks posed by Covid-19 for a considerable period of time – probably until a vaccine becomes available. This could take another 18 months or longer.

It will be crucial that parents and staff have confidence that it is safe to go back to school in the interim. This is absolutely key to the re-opening of schools – for the benefit of the education of all pupils, but especially for those from disadvantaged backgrounds, and children who are at risk.

Second, when normal life eventually returns, we have to do something about the fissures that this crisis has exposed.

We have talked for years about closing gaps, and more latterly “levelling up”. But it remains the case that a significant proportion of young people continue to be left behind.

ASCL’s work on the “forgotten third” has highlighted the fact that every year one-third of pupils finish secondary school with less than a Grade 4 pass in GCSE English and maths – the gateway qualifications to high-flying careers and financial security (ASCL, 2019; SecEd, 2019).

This happens not by accident but because it is baked into the system by the way in which the distribution of grades is determined. Many of these young people will be from disadvantaged homes. And so the cycle of deprivation and disadvantage is perpetuated from one generation to the next.

The Covid-19 crisis is a wake-up call in many ways.

Another of these is that – much like the austerity agenda of the 2010s – the focus on EBacc, stringent accountability, tougher GCSEs and the rest is looking increasingly out-of-touch with the times.

We simply will not achieve a more socially equitable education system without new thinking – about qualifications, accountability, funding, teacher supply, and support for our schools and children who face the greatest challenges.

The gaps that are currently all too apparent constrain not only the life chances of many families but also the potential of the country as a whole. We are not naïve. There will always be inequalities in every society. Some people will fall behind. But we can surely do much better than we do at present.

A post-Covid-19 era must be used as an opportunity for a national renewal. One with a new sense of purpose, mission, and agenda. This is what will really be a great leveller.

  • Geoff Barton is general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders.

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