One of the most striking features of the Tory leadership debate was how uneducated it was. Aside from a vague emphasis on education being important to both candidates, there has been very little genuine recognition of the challenges schools face or how a future prime minister might hope to address them.
In Liz Truss’s first few speeches, she mentioned the economy, taxes, energy prices and the NHS, but education was conspicuous by her absence. Also in the following briefings and messages there was no mention of what is planned for education.
Of course, the new prime minister faces many major challenges and it is understandable that the energy crisis is high on the agenda at the moment.
But education also urgently needs support. Covid has highlighted the differences in children’s experiences outside of school. Some went home with a laptop, a stable internet connection, their own study room, and adults who could regularly share their learning with them. Some visited schools that already had online classes. Others found themselves barred from any meaningful study for months, despite the best efforts of their teachers. All children suffered from the school restrictions, but not all equally.
For the rest of us it may feel like the worst of Covid is over, but schools are still dealing with the fallout and it will be some time yet. The inequalities that Covid uncovered still exist and the current cost of living crisis is likely to cause them to widen even further.
Schools in disadvantaged areas are already working tirelessly to remove a host of barriers to learning before children even reach the classroom. Laundering uniforms, providing sanitary items, and helping families access social services are examples of how schools are already doing everything they can to meet children’s needs beyond the classroom.
However, this can only extend to a certain extent. Schools are facing significant inflationary pressures as the combination of high energy bills and the recent teacher pay rise all come from the same fixed budgets. School leaders must make unenviable decisions about what to cut, just as disadvantaged children and families need more support.
Teachers are desperate to help the children who have suffered the most from the pandemic recover academically, socially and emotionally. Here in the north of England, children experienced some of the highest levels of absenteeism from school. In the 2021/22 autumn semester, the North East had the highest overall absenteeism rate in England, alongside the South West. London had the lowest rate. During lockdown, just 14 per cent of children in the North received four or more offline schoolwork a day, compared to 20 per cent across the country.
The problem is exacerbated by the greater level of persistent deprivation in the north. In several parts of the region, over half of disadvantaged students live in long-term poverty, including Kirklees 58 percent, Sunderland 54 percent, Halton 53 percent, Middlesbrough 53 percent, Knowsley 52 percent, Kingston-upon-Hull 52 percent and Hartlepool 51 percent.
Where many students live most of their lives in poverty, average grades are significantly lower than in more affluent areas.
And figures released earlier this month show that the performance gap between poorer students and their wealthier peers has reached the widest point in a decade.
These statistics, released by the Department of Education, show that while all children’s learning has been disrupted by Covid, disadvantaged students have suffered the most.
The proportion of non-disadvantaged students who meet the “expected standard” in reading, writing and math has fallen from 71 percent in 2019 to 65 percent this year, while the proportion of disadvantaged students has fallen from 51 percent to 43 percent was.
The link between poverty and low levels of education is clear. And the cost-of-living crisis will only exacerbate the situation for families already suffering from poverty.
There is no one-size-fits-all solution to this problem. The answer lies at the heart of communities hardest hit by both Covid and the economic downturn.
We must go beyond the blanket measures enacted by Whitehall and instead give the power and resources to the teachers who know their communities best and can respond at the local level. We need a student premium for all ages, equalized from the early years to age 19, targeting those who are persistently disadvantaged and who we know are most at risk of educational failure.
The cost of living crisis will not affect all families equally. It is time for targeted action to reflect this.
Fiona Spellman is CEO of Leeds-based education organization SHINE.