We are two months into the new school year – the first term back since the March lockdown sent children home across the country – and the effects of the disruption on our most disadvantaged children are increasingly apparent.
The attainment gap between the poorest pupils and their affluent peers, which the Education Policy Institute puts at 18 months for children at secondary age, is projected to inflate to 2.5 years in the coming months as part of an anticipated ‘Covid slide’. All school age children have missed out on around six months of in-school learning amid the pandemic, but the impact of school closures has clearly hit those in working class and low-income households harder than any others – and the aftershocks will reverberate into the coming months and years.
These surging disparities are a product of what has and hasn’t been available to children from differing backgrounds during lockdown – access to technology, books and learning resources. But even less tangible resources like curiosity, engagement and passion for learning are more easily obtained when a family has the financial and cultural means to acquire them, or has the help of well-funded and resourced private schools or selective and predominantly middle class state independent or grammar schools.
Also to the advantage of children from more well-to-do homes is their higher likelihood of obtaining private, one-to-one tutoring outside of the school setting, and this has long been one of the most prevalent factors in widening the attainment gap into an attainment chasm.
Extracurricular tutoring is a near-exclusive privilege of the wealthy – an expensive, but invaluable means to ensure continued academic exceptionalism for the affluent middle and upper classes. On average, one-to-one tutoring costs £26 per hour, barring households on the lower end of the socio-economic scale from obtaining it for children without considerable financial strain or sacrifice, if at all. It has long been left to charities or agencies to provide tutoring for the poorest pupils, paid for by schools whose budgets and teaching staff are already overstretched.
Boris Johnson’s Conservative government knows that personalised, one-to-one tutoring is incomparably effective in increasing pupil attainment. Seven hours’ worth can result in a half-grade’s progress for a child, which is why it is central to the Department of Education (DfE)’s £350 million “catch-up operation” to level the playing field between affluent and disadvantaged children.
The National Tutoring Programme, which launched this month after failing to meet its intended summer start date, connects state schools to a network of approved tutoring providers – a mix of charities and private organisations. These are positioned to provide both in-person and online tutoring for the children most affected by this year’s school closures.
Fundamentally, there is little to object to in the aims of the programme itself. It is providing vital, timely support to the children statistically most likely to miss out on the ‘meaningful’ qualifications required at GCSE level (a grade 5, formerly a low-to-mid C). These grades are essential to allowing children to move on to further education settings such as sixth forms, colleges and apprenticeships.
Without them, poorer children risk joining the almost 783,000 young people aged 16-19 who are not in education, employment or training (NEET) and face a lifetime of economic disadvantage and social isolation. The closer attention and personalised affirmation of tutoring provides a support unavailable to these children in increasingly over-crowded classrooms in the most deprived areas.
But labelling it a “catch-up” measure implies it is a temporary measure only required to counterbalance the disruptive effects of Covid-19. Much like the Treasury’s ongoing furlough scheme is in many ways a mayfly imposition of Universal Basic Income, the tutoring programme is a progressive policy framed as a one-off aberration to right the ship.
Once the imbalance is addressed, it seems that the old status quo will be restored. Just like the employment and wages crises, there has been a crisis in the education system for generations preceding Covid, and it has been exacerbated by the class prejudiced education policy of successive governments.
At last year’s Labour Party conference, the Education Policy Institute and the Fair Education Alliance held an event detailed how it would take 500 years to close the 18-month attainment gap. Catching-up, or sticking plaster measures, are simply not enough. The Conservative party has been letting down the poorest pupils for years.
Further to the questionable narrative in which the government has couched the programme is its starkly low uptake among schools in the run-up to its launch. The responsibility for promoting the programme to schools has largely fallen on the participating tutoring organisations, as the DfE remains notably quiet in its courting of the press to spread the word.
A report in SchoolsWeek last month showed that nearly £140 million of the designated £350 million had not yet been spent. In fact, only hundreds of more than 22,000 eligible state schools in the UK had expressed interest in signing up to the programme.
National Education Union leader Mary Bousted blasted what she called a Tory government which had once again “over-promised but under-delivered” for the children under its care. With the money only designated to fund tutoring for the 2020-21 academic year, time is running out to get it allocated in the places where it can help the children who need the unique benefits of tutoring right now.
So, what can be done? The National Tutoring Programme was devised as a response to a supposedly immediate problem. In the immediate present it is possible to co-sign an open letter urging the government to extend the policy beyond this academic year and extend support to pupils aged 16-19.
Many organisations participating in the programme, including my own Action Tutoring, are charities continuously recruiting volunteer tutors who want to make a direct impact in children’s lives. For schools, it is vital to embrace this opportunity while it is available and take up the support the government is offering. If Johnson and his Conservative forbears have shown us anything, it is that they only tend to dangle carrots like this for so long before snatching them away.
From a broader perspective, it is imperative that we campaign consistently for structural change across the education system. The research of specialists such as Diane Reay or Lee Elliot Major and Stephen Machin exposes the intrinsic class inequities in our state education system and the myth of social mobility for the majority of working-class children.
A system which perpetuates private and selective schooling, a society in which the best-off flock to suburban enclaves then horde the best educational provisions for their own children, and a market economy which allows the most affluent households to buy academic success for their children in the form of private tutoring is not a pathway to a just society.
A structure like this must be dismantled and built up again with the interests of all children in mind, but especially those from the poorest backgrounds who we have been letting down for far too long.