Government’s educational own goals go beyond Marcus Rashford U-turn - Jayne Dowle

Some mornings my teenage daughter would dream of school being closed, but the reality has turned into a nightmare. Like millions of children and young people, she is now struggling with the very concept of education.

Secretary of State for Education Gavin Williamson. Photo: Aaron Chown/PA Wire

A new study has found up to two million school-age youngsters in England – that’s a fifth of all pupils – have done no school-work at home, or less than an hour a day, since lockdown began in March.

Lizzie’s teachers at her academy secondary had predicted high grades for her GCSEs, due to start in September. However, along with the best bits of her parents’ brains – luckily she didn’t inherit my ineptitude at maths and science – my good-all-rounder daughter has also been saddled with the twin qualities of ‘easily distracted’ (me) and ‘procrastination’ (her father). This is not great when you’ve been off school for three months.

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You may recall that some weeks ago I had to take matters in hand and enforce a regimented lockdown school day at home. I’m sorry to report that we have had a rebellion in the ranks. Those quiet days of study have been replaced by frustration and lassitude. And to be fair, I’m with Lizzie on this.

Marcus Rashford (right) called for the provision of free school meals to continue in the summer holidays.. Photo: Martin Rickett/PA.

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As a parent, I’m disappointed at the lack of interaction from her teachers. One email home a week from her form tutor asking how she is doing hardly begins to approach the seismic shift in ways of studying since lockdown began. No phone calls. And no virtual learning classrooms, although the school says it is trialling remote lessons.

Lizzie is not alone. Earlier this week, an academic study by the National Foundation for Educational Research found that about four million pupils in England have no regular contact with teachers and that up to six million children had not returned the last assignment set. I can see why. I love poetry but even I’m sick of the sight of the repetitive English literature assignment. There are only so many times a person can write several paragraphs comparing two poems. Where’s the ingenuity? These long weeks of lockdown would have lent themselves perfectly to a major guided reading project to foster the depth of study and understanding of literature so often lacking.

My concerns were thrown into yet more troubling relief when I learned from my brother-in-law, a deputy headmaster himself, that his teenagers were receiving three or four virtual lessons a day via Zoom. Then again, they attend a grammar school.

Which brings me onto a point far more important than one teenage girl in South Yorkshire stropping off to her bedroom. As footballer Marcus Rashford has highlighted with all the precision
of a winning goal, the Government is standing back whilst searing divisions between haves and have-nots widen daily.

I’m glad this admirable young man persuaded the Prime Minister to U-turn over free school meals to help vulnerable children survive the long summer holidays. However, I suspect that it’s not much more than a public relations exercise on the part of Mr Johnson, to be filed under the same heading as ‘handing out thousands of free laptops’. In other words, a temporary sticking plaster, not a permanent fix.

If this Government really did care about the plight of all those millions of disengaged young people, the Education Secretary, Gavin Williamson, would be ensuring their education was top of every priority list. Instead, what we’ve seen is a complete failure of imagination from the top. Rather than brokering a deal with the teaching unions for a safe return to the classroom, Mr Williamson’s department picked a fight.

Instead of taking into account the biggest-possible picture and looking at how empty public buildings such as colleges and universities might have been temporarily repurposed to provide safe, socially-distanced learning spaces, his department refuses to engage, simply shrugging and muttering about risk Assessments.

Schools are supposed to be the great equalisers, giving the greatest support to those with the greatest need. Now this massive evolutionary force has been stopped in its tracks. It’s enough to make a parent yearn for the zealous days of Michael Gove in charge. As the adopted son of an Aberdeen fish processor, who went on to an Oxford degree and forwards to a centre-stage political career, at least he truly understood the importance of ‘levelling up’.

I know lots of teachers and I know how hard so many are struggling to give their very best. However, I can only imagine how many obstacles are in their way; not just in delivering online lessons, but in creating manageable plans for returning and devising what is optimistically known as ‘blended learning’ programmes in preparation for whatever autumn term might bring. We think it’s bad now. My fear is that parents, teachers and most importantly, pupils, will have even more to worry about in September.

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