It is hoped that one positive legacy of this period will be efforts to shrink class sizes
It is hoped that one positive legacy of this period will be efforts to shrink class sizes © Getty

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As pupils trickle back into UK classrooms, ministers and education unions are locked in an unhelpful stand-off about who is to blame for the fact that so few students are having face-to-face lessons or receiving adequate tuition online.

Still, as Britain emerges from lockdown, one encouraging feature of this irritable conversation about education is that concern is being focused on those children most at risk of long-term damage from the crisis. The prolonged absence from school will harm disproportionately the chances of those pupils who already find it hard to thrive in the UK’s patchy school system, or to pass our high-stakes public exams.

Campaigners for change have christened them “the forgotten third”. In 2018, 36 per cent of England’s GCSE candidates missed a Grade 4, or standard pass, in both English and Maths. A similar proportion leave primary school each year without reaching the expected learning levels for their age. Vulnerable and disadvantaged youngsters disproportionately fill these ranks.

Chart showing the attainment gap between advantaged and disadvantaged pupils is forecast to widen sharply during school closure, reversing years of progress

Roy Blatchford, the educationalist who coined the phrase, quotes some of the hundreds of thousands of pupils in this group in a new collection of essays, The Forgotten Third. “This grade makes it look as though I can’t read or write”, says a student. “If you fail, you are nothing,” says another. “It’s grim and professionally very frustrating,” says a headteacher who sees the same percentage branded as failures each year.

Ministers are looking for short-term, catch-up solutions. Research supports the idea that small group tutoring can particularly help those who struggle — the UK government is being lobbied to announce plans on this approach. This low-cost intervention has the backing of some of the most reputable academics who research attainment gaps in UK education. Even so, the worldwide scale of the problem has sent policymakers scurrying to the archives for clues as to how severe the damage might be and which remedies might be most effective.

There is no exact precedent. But we can glean something from how pupils and teachers responded to other disasters that have kept kids out of school.

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After Hurricane Katrina, pupils in New Orleans had no face-to-face teaching for months. When they returned to school, staff tried a mix of catching-up on missed coursework combined with reinforcing skills lost while school was closed. They also discovered it was important to add enough new material to keep kids engaged and stretched, particularly among older age groups. The greatest attrition during the time away was to maths skills. Even during the long summer breaks of normal years, maths, along with spelling, is the area that tends to decay for some kids.

More reassuring is the experience after the Christchurch earthquake. Among pupils out of school for an extended period, test scores actually improved. Educationalist John Hattie, who advised the New Zealand government during that period, credits schools with concentrating on teaching pupils what they needed to know, rather than following the usual teaching plan.

Nevertheless, the core problem after any disaster is the widening attainment gap between kids already on different educational trajectories. As Prof Hattie has pointed out: “The most likely implication of school closures relates to equity. Students who come from well-resourced families will fare much better than those from lower-resourced families.”

Teachers in England have estimated that in state schools with a high proportion of deprived kids in their intake, more than half of pupils have done no remote schoolwork at all during the Covid-19 lockdown. That compares to just over 20 per cent in state schools with the most affluent intakes.

Chart showing that during lockdown, pupils in more deprived areas have been participating less in online schooling than their less deprived peers

Meanwhile, the top third of pupils are likely to have made strides while at home, according to a projection by US academics of what might result from the school closures. So there’s probably no need to worry about them.

As for vulnerable children, UK teachers report that the small group lessons offered to some pupils throughout the crisis, including through the Easter holiday, has in some cases helped them gain significantly in language development. Mr Blatchford hopes that one positive legacy of this period will be efforts to shrink class sizes. But he also warns that a Covid-19-induced recession will swell the ranks of disadvantaged children and so the obstacles to learning.

“The left behind”. “Levelling up”. Political slogans come and go. But the plight of kids stuck on a low-achieving trajectory is more than just a feature of this crisis.

miranda.green@ft.com

Letter in response to this column:

Pandemic should not be used to divide schools / From Stephen McKernan, Headmaster, St Edward’s Prep School, Cheltenham, Gloucestershire, UK

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