By Tanvir Malik Mukhtar, CEO of Scholar Hub
As public pressure bears down on the Tory government, spearheaded by the footballer Marcus Rashford’s tweets, Boris Johnson enacts his third policy U-turn and agrees to provide free school meal vouchers to disadvantaged kids over the summer. This is a significant win for 1.3 million children who without these vouchers face hunger and malnutrition.
Compounding this is the Social Mobility Commission report last week stating 600,000 more children are living in a state of poverty compared to figures in 2012, with a projected 5.2 million total by 2022, a staggering figure for a G20 country. It emphasises that providing free summer meals simply isn’t enough in tackling poverty, more must be done to help these children and one way is through education. Often an equaliser, bringing families out of poverty through more opportunities and better jobs, education should be a focus in tackling poverty levels today. However, COVID-19 has accelerated and magnified poverty levels laying bare inequalities in our education system.
A recent (UCL) Institute of Education study revealed an estimated 2 million children across primary and secondary schools have had no work set by their teachers through lockdown with 4 million children having limited teacher visibility. Some of the reasons why include; a lack of staff training on digital devices; a lack of IT resources to set up the systems required to teach online; schools encouraging free app use such as Seesaw and the BBC educational content; schools focused on classroom inequality and ultimately the lack of devices available to disadvantaged children with some families having no laptop or only one laptop between several children. Digital learning only works when a child has a dedicated laptop and wifi for streamed lessons to do homework, how is it in 21st century UK nearly a million children can’t be taught as they may not have a device or an internet connection?
On June 16th, the government announced a joint initiative with BT to provide disadvantaged children, who consequently have not been able to study online during the lockdown, with free wifi access for six months. Nick Gibb, Schools Minister, added: “the government will do everything possible to make sure no child, whatever their background, falls behind as a result of coronavirus.” We have committed over £100m to support pupils with remote education, including to provide laptops, tablets and 4G wireless routers to disadvantaged children and young people, and this initiative will build on that work.”
Additionally, nearly 200,000 laptops have been bought as part of an £85million scheme to help poor children study during lockdown, however, unfortunately only 50,000 of these devices have been distributed. A paltry amount considering the education chasm that has been exacerbated by poverty and Covid.
Life is very different, if you are from an upper to middle class background or send your children to an independent school. Lessons are streamed daily with full timetables, weekly one on one tutor time, and homework which is actually marked. A survey last month by the Sutton Trust, a social mobility charity, found pupils at private schools are more than twice as likely to receive daily online tuition compared to their state-educated peers. This divide will not bode well in the future months.
Creating a level playing field
As September approaches, when the majority of pupils will hopefully return, children who have had no learning throughout the lockdown will trail behind their peers. This is not fair and the repercussions will be felt in years to come. Creating a level playing field, especially for GCSE and A ‘Level pupils, will be frighteningly difficult and an absolute necessity for government.
One solution, which been discussed by the Children’s Commissioner for England, Anne Longfield, is summer school for children who have been left behind, however, there is no consensus as to how this will take place. School unions and teachers are reluctant to work through into the summer months as they have been on the whole working throughout the lockdown, albeit remotely.
A possible work around is utilising the independent sector and partnering with private online tuition companies who have thousands of qualified school teachers on their books. These teachers are happy to work over the summer and can provide essential guidance and catch-up for lagging students.
The government have been listening to the outcry from parents and the Education minister is primed to announce a year long programme for government to fund private tutors for disadvantaged kids starting from September. This will help in alleviating inequalities and boost learning for those who so desperately need it. However, it must be done right not like the fiasco over ventilators where some companies were given priority over local providers.
DBS is also an issue. Private tuition is not regulated by law and tutors do not need to be DBS certified. If private tutors get access to schoolchildren via the national programme this must be fixed. At Scholar Hub, security is at the heart of its ethos as it is a strict policy that all teachers of children must have a DBS certificate or enhanced online verification, even university graduates, as studies have indicated that up to a third of child abuse occurs by young adults.
Just as the government have partnered with BT to provide free wifi to disadvantaged kids, the partnering with private tuition companies is welcomed to bolster disadvantaged children’s education over the summer and for the rest of the year. Only then will the chasm close for those left behind from the COVID disaster.