The Observer view on the plight facing children post-Covid
The prime minister has touted “levelling up” as the overarching theme of his domestic policy agenda. But in no area is the hollowness of this commitment revealed more than in relation to children and young people. Throughout this pandemic, the government has disregarded the young. At almost every turn, it has failed to put in place adequate measures to reduce the impact of Covid, which has been hugely disruptive to their education and wellbeing.
And so it continues, with the government washing its hands of any responsibility for ensuring this month’s exam results are fair to young people, an ongoing lack of clarity about any requirement for university students to be double-vaccinated ahead of the start of term to attend in person and an ill-advised reform to vocational education that its own assessment says will disproportionately affect young people from disadvantaged backgrounds.
It was always going to be difficult to assess accurately and fairly young people’s performance for the purpose of exam results, given how much school they have missed over the past 18 months. But the government has not taken the steps needed to avoid a repetition of last summer’s chaos, when it insisted on using a crude algorithm to adjust teacher-assessed grades, then dropped the scheme altogether when it proved as problematic as education experts had warned it would be. This year, it has decided to push all the responsibility for allocating grades fairly on to schools and teachers, presumably to avoid the criticism it attracted last year. It has given contradictory messages to schools on how to do this: on the one hand, it says they should assess the standard at which pupils are actually performing despite the in-person teaching they have missed this year; on the other, it has created the expectation that the distribution of grades should be similar in 2021 to that of 2020, when there was significant grade inflation. The government has produced no uniform way of moderating or anchoring grades. In doing so, it has created another system with huge potential for unfairness and an incentive for schools to inflate grades because they expect other schools to do the same.
Most worryingly, this system may further disadvantage young people from less affluent backgrounds who have suffered the greatest learning loss during the pandemic. New research from the Sutton Trust published last week shows that affluent parents have been more likely to put pressure on teachers to improve their children’s exam grades. Some schools have been threatened with legal action by parents trying to secure the grades their children need to get into university. The government should have done more to build safeguards against this into the system, given that children from poorer backgrounds tend to do better in an exam-based system than one based on teacher assessment, and that the most selective universities are expected to take fewer young people from disadvantaged backgrounds this year due to this group of young people being bigger than in previous years.
The government is compounding this with its foolhardy decision to scrap the majority of BTecs in favour of its preferred new vocational qualification, T-levels, a decision the former education secretary Kenneth Baker has described as “an act of vandalism”. BTecs are a relatively robust vocational qualification that help working-class students access higher education: almost half of white working-class young people who go to university have at least one BTec and 36% of black students who go to university have only BTecs. T-levels, which follow GCSEs and are equivalent to three A-levels, were only launched last year and are relatively untested. The abrupt phasing out of BTecs will only harm the prospects of young people from disadvantaged backgrounds. And this comes when the government has resolutely failed to provide sufficient catch-up funding to close the widening gap opened up by the pandemic, such that it prompted its education recovery chief Sir Kevan Collins to resign in June, warning that it did “not come close” to what was needed. As a society, we continue to invest far more in young people who go to university than those who do not.
The government has also abandoned any leadership in relation to the university system. There has been no fee rebate for young people who have missed months of in-person teaching. Unsurprisingly, fewer than three in 10 students thought this represented good value. Most universities will offer a blend of online and in-person teaching next year; there has been little discussion about what this means for students’ academic experience and wellbeing. Just weeks from the start of the autumn term, the government has yet to set out vaccine requirements for in-person teaching, including international students, and if the latter will need to pay to quarantine in hotels for 10 days should they arrive from red-list countries.
Last week, the education secretary, Gavin Williamson, announced the government would roll out a tiny pot of cash to trial the teaching of Latin in a handful of secondary schools. It is a gimmicky initiative designed to draw attention away from the government’s abject failure to do enough to mitigate the impact of the pandemic on children and young people. But no distraction technique can disguise the fact that the fundamental injustices in our education system are getting progressively worse, with the gap in attainment between children from richer and poorer backgrounds growing even further last year. This will affect the prospects of a whole generation for decades to come and the responsibility for that lies with no one other than this government.