Hull MP Emma Hardy: 'The school system isn't equal - coronavirus only exposes the problem'

The education attainment gap has widened, and coronavirus is making it worse. Geraldine Scott speaks to Hull West and Hessle MP and Shadow Education Minister Emma Hardy on what can be done to help disadvantaged pupils.

Many MPs carry their past professional interests into their work in Parliament.

For Hull West and Hessle MP Emma Hardy, it was her time as a teacher which stayed with her, the gross inequality seen between children who came from disadvantaged backgrounds and those who did not leaving their mark.

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Since her election in 2017 Ms Hardy, has been strong on the importance of shrinking that gap.

Hull West and Hessle MP Emma Hardy.

Now, as Shadow Education Minister, she is in an even better position to do so, with a desire to make school a fair experience for all.

“The school system isn’t equal and doesn’t give everyone an equal chance,” said the 40-year-old.

“We’ve created this system where if at first you don’t succeed, you don’t succeed. And that surely is completely wrong.

“We have a third of children leaving without the grades they need in Maths and English, and yet we’re repeating the same system that they just failed and forcing them to do it again, instead of thinking how can we enable more children to get the Math and English skills they need.”

Statistics last year showed that for the first time since 2011, the attainment gap at GCSE level between disadvantaged pupils and their wealthier classmates had widened.

Those counted as persistently disadvantaged were almost two years behind their peers as they reached the key exams.

Ms Hardy, who for more than 10 years was a primary school teacher, said: “It’s not because parents don’t care, but if you’re in a family where you’re working two jobs, your partner’s working two jobs, you don’t physically have the time to sit and read with your children, not because you don’t care about them but because you’re working to make ends meet."

While the Government has committed to giving opportunity for all, the coronavirus crisis has only worsened the situation.

Ms Hardy, who volunteered to teach again at the beginning of the outbreak, this week launched an appeal for old laptops to be donated to children now having to study from home who may not have access to the technology needed.

She said: “One thing I noticed when I went into school, just before they all broke up, was the number of children who don’t have access to equipment at home. In certain areas of the city where there’s higher levels of deprivation they don’t have that technology, so the schools were having to photocopy worksheets and physically go and post it through different children’s doors.”

She said even if a households did have one family computer, if the family had more than one child or a parent was working from home, this meant it was impossible for them to keep up with school work.

“The big fear is, by the time the schools do go back, that learning gap, that attainment gap that we talk about, will have grown really, really wide between the families and the children who’ve been able to access online learning and have all the support and the children who for no fault of their own have just not been able to,” she said.

Currently two schools are participating in the pilot of the appeal, but it is hoped more can be included in the future.

Ms Hardy said as well as getting the technology, she was asking telecoms companies about whether data caps could be lifted on phones so that children had internet access, and what was actually available for children online.

“So many of the apps and the learning tools you have to pay for,” she said. “If you’ve got two children who are both equally academically able, one has more advantages than the other because that one during this time, has access to the internet, that technology, mum and dad have bought them apps and learning resources to do or make them do it. So when they return to school, they’re going to be in a position of great advantage compared to another child who’s just as capable, but hasn’t had the same access.

“I talk a lot about the equality of opportunity, how can we ensure that every child has the same opportunities as everybody else? This crisis is really highlighting that difference and we need to be asking ourselves questions as a country, what more can we do to make sure that that other child who happens to grow up in one family, that they’re not going to suffer disadvantages compared to a child growing up in another? What can we do to try and equalise it and make it fair for everybody so everyone’s got the chance to reach their potential?

“If we don’t deal with this problem quickly, when the children return to school - let’s be honest that’s probably not going to be until September - there are going to be children who are going to be at least six months behind their counterparts in the same year.”

She added that “knowledge is power” and to come back from this crisis and rebuild our economy, it was crucial to make sure education was fair.

“We should be looking at finding ways to support as many people as possible,” she said.

- To discuss donating laptops, which will be professionally wiped of data and refurbished, contact Newington Academy on [email protected] or Chiltern Primary School on [email protected].

- To hear Emma Hardy's full interview, download Pod's Own Country, The Yorkshire Post's Political podcast, available on iTunes, Google Podcasts, Spotify, and wherever else you usually get your podcasts.

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