Education

The pandemic has revealed how unequal education is. What can be done?

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One of the most striking effects of the pandemic has been rising levels of education inequality. Missed school and slow adoption of virtual learning has meant a significant attainment gap has emerged in schools. Disadvantaged children have suffered most.

But this issue began well before the pandemic. In 2018 the UK ranked 16th in secondary education inequality by UNICEF’s ‘Unfair Start’ programme, behind countries like Portugal, Canada, Croatia, and Ireland.

Earlier education fared worse: the UK ranked in 23rd and 20th for primary and preschool inequality. The pandemic has not created a crisis in education, but rather made existing issues worse.

A long-term approach

A new long-term approach is needed in the education sector, to resolve the attainment gap caused by the pandemic and rectify inequality in education.

Mark Logan supports what could be a credible non-partisan solution to the problem. The MP for Bolton North East was an early proponent of charity initiatives offering tutoring and backed by the government, exemplified by his work with volunteer charity Tutor the Nation.

Describing the successes of the work and his vision for the future, he said: ‘It would be fantastic to see this networking approach growing from Bolton and branching out across the country that can both have staying power and empower generations.’

At school and at home

But tutoring is only one part of the shift needed to overcome this inequality. Studies consistently show the importance of socio-economic conditions on classroom achievement. This must be addressed if any real change is to be implemented.

Although charities provide an invaluable service to disadvantaged children, they need government support to provide the necessary resources. From basic services like lunches and counselling to more generally improving children’s material living conditions. Education cannot solely rely on charity – the role of volunteer tutoring organisations should be to supplement learning and not be the centre of it.

Digital access

What volunteering organisations deliver is a greatly reduced cost for the government, freeing up funds to target specific areas. For example, 1 in 5 children on free school meals have no computer at home, and 550,000 children have no access to Wi-Fi.

Distributing wireless routers and equipment within schools offers a temporary solution. But most private schools have already transitioned to more tech-focused teaching. More action is needed to allow other schools to catch up.

Speaking to teachers in the state sector has revealed the difficulty in providing online classes, often with little support. Some comment that further 1-to-1 teaching will be necessary to close the attainment gap. Early initiatives have managed to do some of this, but more work and funding needs to be available for them to succeed on a wider national scale.

An imperfect solution

Last year the government introduced the National Tutoring Programme (NTP) which aimed to remedy inequality through additional support outside of the classroom. Up to this point the nationwide programme has been seen as a moderate success, but it is plagued by a myriad of issues.

The most obvious is that the programme is unsustainable, something its critics have highlighted. Costing £350 million, with an additional £200 million to support mental health, the NTP runs the risk of being cut like other children’s services once government borrowing begins to shrink. The programme has also been involved in a number of recent scandals, mostly linked to attempts to lower the cost of providing tutoring.

Therefore, something will need to replace the NTP and support the education system if tutoring is deemed to be the way to rectify academic inequality. One such initiative comes with the previously mentioned charity Tutor the Nation (TTN) which provides free tutoring in the state sector at no cost to the school.

Cautious optimism

I spoke with Jacky Lambert, founder of TTN. The charity is currently working with with 200 tutors in 11 schools, primarily in Bolton thanks to connections with Mark Logan MP. Jacky has big plans for TTN, aiming to replace the stop-gap initiatives and provide a long-term solution to education inequality. She said the charity was initially kept small, ‘so that we could scale it, because my aim was to do this in hundreds of thousands.’

Chief Administrator of TTN, Ros Llewelyn, was similarly optimistic: ‘We want the children to be able to get their grades so they can do whatever they want in life be, that at university, an apprenticeship or going straight into a job.’

TTN’s relatively low cost and strong foundations makes it a good option for struggling schools, but only if they can find the required number of volunteers. But the charity feels it can step up to the task.

‘I don’t know whether the NTP will be viable for as long as it needs to be, so I think something’s got to step up in its place,’ Ros said.

Next steps

The initial success of tutoring programmes show that they can be a credible solution to tackling inequality in education. But the government must provide adequate, long-term support alongside them.

A substantial shift in our education system will only come in response to sustained pressure for sufficient resources to schools in need. The momentum for improving social conditions brought about by the pandemic should be harnessed to create long-lasting change.

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