Mind the Gap: the Price Paid for Closing Our Schools | Luke Robert Black

Missing just one day of school can reduce the likelihood of a child getting a Level 5 or above in GCSE Mathematics by 0.8%, according to the Government’s own 2016 report into absenteeism. Whilst nothing to scoff at, 0.8% is probably worth taking a tactical hit for, even if all your child has is a serious case of the sniffles and it certainly won’t frighten the most molly-coddled of cotton-wool-wrapped students back into their classrooms.

However, beyond two, three, or even five days, the probability of passing your GCSE in Maths begins to dramatically nosedive: one week of absence sets a child back by 4% and grows to 16% in just one month. After three months, that figure rises to 48%. You know where I am going with this.

Like a ‘tactical 5’ incremental percentage cut for handing in a university essay late, the stakes increase substantially after even just one week. Now, a good school wouldn’t let a single one of its students play with these stakes; yet every single one in the country has done so – for months on end – at the Government’s request. If one day off school cuts the likelihood of you passing your maths GCSE by 0.8%, well, you can do the proverbial when it comes to working out the impact of the lockdown.

Statistics and predicting the impact on grades aside, it is of course appalling that our schools were closed for as long as they were and the deep negative impact this has had on safeguarding, literacy and the social development of our children all speak for themselves.

Worse still, it will have invariably wrenched open what was once a fast-closing attainment gap between richer and poorer students – something that the Government had been successful in narrowing over the last 10 years. Examples of this include stories of schools like the Brampton Manor Academy, who sent 55 students to Oxbridge in just one year, a feat deemed virtually impossible 15 years ago from a borough in which often not one single state-educated student would find themselves punting on the Cam.

Yet, and even when our schools are fully open, there is a difference between attending Dulwich College and the Brampton Manor Academy. This is of course deeply unfair but this difference, thanks to outstanding classroom practice, good governance, and vastly improved behaviour for learning in lessons, is becoming less stark over time and how much money you earn becomes less significant in deciding your child’s education – and rightly so. But all these improvements, and valiant narrowing of gaps between poorer and richer students, hinges on one thing: the school itself.

So, what happens to that 0.8% when the lessons keep running but the school closes – does it disappear? Is a virtual day of school the same if it were in person? Can Zoom and Skype lessons allay the Government’s own predictions on absenteeism?

The answer to all these questions, is no.

Earlier this week, a report conducted by Oxford University found that primary school students learnt “little or nothing” and, despite teaching often being of extremely high quality, there being no profound positive impact on students’ learning, with overall progress being 20% lower than expected. When examining the impact on poorer students, students’ progress was even lower, dropping to 50% less progress than expected.

Whilst this study refers to primary school students, the expectation amongst education policy analysts and the teaching community is that a similar drop in progress is expected for secondary school students too – with a gap between the students at Brampton Manor and Dulwich emerging once again. What defined progress, in the virtual classroom, relied on aspects completely removed from a child’s ability: like having a good place in their home to study or having enough support from their parents to really push themselves in their lessons.  Because even if you gave every single student in the UK an iPad, in fact some fee-paying schools do, the gap would still rear its head every single time.

Targeted intervention, support clubs, teaching assistants or even the simple but extremely effective use of pace in a well-structured lesson, were no longer at a teacher’s disposal. The ability for teachers to make in-the-moment decisions about their lessons or spend a few extra minutes with a student struggling to get their head around the passé composé in French were not features of even the best virtual lessons.

Because, however you dress it up, learning how to convert decimals into fractions, or indeed about the history of penicillin, is not the same online and the tools used by good academies and free schools to narrow this gap were made completely redundant. Meaning that the 0.8%, whilst probably not as high a stake thanks to things like Google Classroom, wasn’t decreasing evenly for everyone. 

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