Commenting on a report by the Education Policy Institute which finds that the ‘education disadvantage gap’ stopped closing even before the Covid-19 pandemic, Kevin Courtney, joint general secretary of the National Education Union, said:
“No child should be limited by their background or postcode, yet after years of austerity and cuts to local services the gap between disadvantaged children and their peers is no longer closing – in fact, it is starting to grow. Cuts to school funding, a growing teacher recruitment and retention crisis and ever-increasing class sizes have a significant impact on a pupil’s experience in school. In addition, children from disadvantaged backgrounds have their own barriers to overcome.
"Despite the Government’s promise to ‘level up’ education, children who need the most support have been badly let down. Even before the coronavirus pandemic, head teachers, teachers and support staff had been working flat out to tackle the impact of poverty in the classroom, but inadequate government policies and cuts to school funding have raised almost insurmountable barriers to learning for children from disadvantaged backgrounds. Every day our members teach children who come to school too hungry to learn or are left without the basic school equipment they need. At the start of 2020 a third of children in the UK – 4.2 million children – were trapped in poverty. Research indicates that as the effects of lockdown and recession take hold, a further 200,000 children will be in poverty by Christmas. In the fifth richest country in the world, this is simply shameful.
"Over the course of the pandemic school staff worked hard to reach out to families they knew were being hit the hardest, but schools alone cannot solve the issue of poverty. Immediate, systemic action is needed to ensure that no child is left behind. But the Government has been falling badly short, with the botched rolling out of free laptops and other equipment to those who need them, and a distribution system for free school meals in lockdown so bungled that it fell to schools and local authorities to plug the gap.
"If the Government is serious about ensuring all pupils receive access to a good quality, equitable education they must put their money where their mouth is and put measures in place to lift pupils out of the grip of poverty and disadvantage.
"When the new term starts next week, many children will return to school having faced significant upheaval and new economic challenges at home. There is an opportunity for us to build back better in the light of the recent crisis. This is the Government's chance to right the wrong of society-wide inequality and its impact on educational achievement. They must grasp it.”