Photo: St Norbert (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Tom Laing says government failures on schools and universities could blight a generation

Covid-19 has had a huge impact on all sectors of our economy: no one has been left unaffected by this pandemic. It’s often said that this disease is most dangerous for the elderly in our society, and the figures from the Office of National Statistics back that up: nearly three-quarters of deaths involving Covid-19 have been people aged 75 years and over. For young people, it is an entire generation’s hopes and aspirations that are at risk.

In March 2020 the Government first announced it was closing schools, ushering in a new age of lessons. Learning on Zoom is far from ideal: students were forced to adapt to new ways of learning, with students’ bedrooms now doubling up as class rooms. In the writing of this piece I spoke to several students who told me that after a few months of virtual learning they lost their routine and that, with little support from their schools, maintaining home schooling became impossible. Indeed, according to the ONS, over half of parents with school age children said they were struggling to continue their learning while online.

The biggest impact of the changes in schooling has been the ways they have increased educational inequalities. We saw through the exams fiasco the way social inequalities directly intersect with our education system. However, educational inequalities don’t stop at exams. The impact of Covid is long-term and may be felt for years. Some reports have found that state schools have provided less online classes than private schools. In addition, some students have struggled to continue home-schooling because of a lack of access to the necessary equipment. Students with special educational needs have lacked some of the usual support they receive in school; students who rely on one-to-one support have been left without access to it. And, as an example of the perhaps surprising inequalities produced by Covid, furloughed parents in more manual jobs may find they have had more time to spend supporting their children’s education than parents with white collar jobs who are working from home.

School age students aren’t the only ones affected by all this. Many university students have been stuck paying for accommodation they aren’t using, while others have been left isolated from home. Attending university is stressful at the best of times, but during a pandemic which has shut campuses, students have been deprived of places like libraries and some of the usual support services. This impacts on student mental wellbeing. We have observed for several years now a dramatic increase in the number of people aged 16-24 in England suffering from poor mental health. This almost silent crisis has led to unacceptably long waiting lists for Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS) for years, and now we have Covid to make things worse. Young people are unable to socialise in person with friends and are cut off from the support networks of extended family and school. All of this in an age when we are all feeling stressed and anxious about the future means the impact of Covid on young people’s mental health will be felt for years to come.

Finally, what are the lessons we can and must learn from this crisis? Educational inequalities are nothing new, but Covid presents urgent challenges. We will need to invest in more one-to-one support for students most at risk of falling behind. We must also work to address making schools safe. School closures have been needed to prevent the spread of this disease, but the situation of reopening then closing again was not inevitable. Social distancing is made more difficult by the overcrowded classrooms we have experienced under this Government. We also saw a lack of clarity on how to make schools Covid safe.

If we are to prevent repeated school closures then the Government must stop putting out mixed messages. While we all hope the vaccine will bring an end to Covid, its effects will be with us for years to come and unless we work now to invest in ending educational inequalities and fix mental health provision, then Covid’s effects will be measured not just in lives lost, but in young people’s lost dreams, opportunities and potential.

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