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Following the Black Death, the authorities were determined to prevent social change. Through the Statute of Labourers in 1351, Parliament created a maximum wage for peasants and prevented them from asking for higher pay. The outbreak of cholera in the mid-19th century heralded a very different response. Parliament accepted that clean water was required by everyone if anyone was to be safe from disease. Thus began a radical programme of sanitary improvement, particularly in the poorest areas. It is not yet certain whether the response to the infection crisis of 2020 will be to maintain inequalities, as happened in 1351, or reduce them, as in the 1860s. Any hope of the latter is predicated on us having clear proposals for education reform.
If we are to seize this opportunity for greater educational equality, we must consider the following four questions:
Lockdown has further revealed the huge inequalities in the learning that takes place at home. Yet a return to normal is not enough. Even in a usual school year, students are only at school for 190 days. For 175 days a year, school doors are shut and the attainment gap grows fastest. We need fresh thinking on how to deliver out of term provision. One such example is Head Start, an innovative summer schools programme giving academic support to disadvantaged students before their crucial GCSE year. Similarly, Summer Hype are offering free online tuition and academic support for young people struggling with their schoolwork during lockdown. If disadvantaged students are to catch up after lockdown, programmes such as these will need the investment and support to be rolled out across the country.
Schools are lifelines for deprived communities and lockdown has revealed the extent of our work. Whether it be the daily free school meal, or the teacher who notices signs of neglect or abuse, or the pastoral staff who support a child’s mental health, our work is too important to be confined to term times. This crisis has shown that schools are willing to step up and serve their communities even when closed. The enthusiasm and initiative that staff have demonstrated in their provision of everything from PPE to hot meals needs to be harnessed if we are to be at the centre of reducing inequalities in the future. The ‘cradle to career’ approach of Reach Academy Feltham which begins with antenatal classes points to a model where schools can provide for their students far beyond the school gates.
The proponents of educational technology have long claimed that it has transformative power. However, the experience of disadvantaged students suggests the opposite. Three key inequalities need addressing for it to be successful. Firstly, technological inequality. Lacking access to the internet and appropriate devices, our students find themselves cut off from online learning. Secondly, spatial inequalities. Lacking the physical or mental space and time to complete online learning, disadvantaged students fall further behind. Finally, there are inequalities in familial engagement and support. Fewer than 50% of parents without higher education qualifications feel confident directing their child’s learning. If EduTech is to be part of the future, much more needs to be done to ensure it fulfils every child’s right to an education. The first step has been taken by many schools in recent weeks in finding out which students have access to technology at home. Schools will need funding and training if they are to use this information and unlock the benefits of EduTech for all.
The disparities in the quality of teaching across the country are clear. Suffering from issues of teacher recruitment and retention, schools in deprived areas are more likely to rely on supply staff and non-specialists. The response to the lockdown perhaps provides an answer. Teachers are drawing on centrally-planned resources from system leaders such as Oak National Academy to alleviate workload and deliver high-quality lessons. Post-lockdown, this culture of sharing and co-operation may be a means of spreading outstanding education. Furthermore, teachers have been quick to use lockdown to hold virtual CPD sessions, reaching far more people than physical conferences are able to. Sustaining and accelerating these changes will benefit those teachers in areas which are often overlooked and left behind.
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