Coronavirus: Where was the national effort to help our schools?

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Government support is patchy and well-meaning ideas such as laptops for disadvantaged families haven’t worked as they should.

    Some extraordinary things have been achieved since the coronavirus changed our lives earlier this year – things that some never thought possible.

    Seven new hospitals were created at record speed to ramp up capacity in the NHS.

    More than one in four workers are now supported by the government’s furlough scheme in an unprecedented move to protect jobs.

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    The country came together in a national lockdown that was tightly obeyed for months.

    There has been Herculean effort to help the health service and the economy through the pandemic, supported by billions of pounds from the government.

    And yet I can’t help but wonder why there hasn’t been a similar Herculean effort to help the millions of children who have been shut out of school.

    While teaching unions are quick to point out that classrooms have remained open to the children of key workers and vulnerable pupils throughout the pandemic, schools in England won’t fully reopen until September. By then, an astonishing nine million children will have been out of the classroom for six months.

    It’s hard to quantify the impact that this could have on their education and life chances, but the children’s commissioner has warned of a “lost generation” and analysis by the Education Endowment Foundation (EFF) found that a decade of progress closing the attainment gap between disadvantaged children and their classmates will be wiped out.

    It’s for this reason that we decided to centre our first film on Sophy Ridge On Sunday since the start of lockdown on the impact of coronavirus on education. We’ll speak to former Ofsted head Sir Michael Wilshaw and scientist Devi Sridhar, plus we’ll get the picture in Wales with First Minister Mark Drakeford.

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    This week we visited Ifield Community College in Crawley, West Sussex, where a third of pupils are eligible for free school meals – more than double the national average. The headteacher is keen to reopen from September because he’s worried about the impact of long-term closure on his pupils, particularly from a mental health perspective.

    Government support has been patchy – the guidelines unclear – and well-meaning schemes such as providing laptops for disadvantaged families haven’t worked as they should.

    More than half of the pupils eligible for the laptops at Ifield still haven’t received them – just a couple of weeks before the school breaks up for the summer. If the money had been handed to the school directly to buy the laptops, every child would have one by now.

    Visiting Ifield also crystallised for me how impossible it will be to enforce two-metre social distancing – or even one metre – in September. Classrooms are set up for 12 children spaced two metres apart – but there will need to be 30 children in each room when they are fully open. There simply isn’t room, even at one metre.

    Should the government have done more to use empty buildings to help children get safely back to school more quickly?

    Could volunteers have been used to help keep class sizes smaller?

    Hundreds of thousands of people volunteered to help the NHS in its time of need. Businesses answered the call to manufacture ventilators and protective equipment.

    Where was the national effort to help our schools?

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