COVID-19: School closures could wipe out a decade of progress for less privileged pupils

Closing schools has been one of the most painful consequences of the pandemic – the action Boris Johnson described as his “last resort”.

Charities have warned that it could wipe out a decade of progress closing the gap between less privileged pupils and their peers.

New research from the Social Mobility Foundation (SMF) has found that half of students from disadvantaged backgrounds believe they won’t get the grades they deserve after this year’s examinations were scrapped.

In a poll of 863 social mobility students – shared exclusively with Sophy Ridge on Sunday – 73% said they are worried about being able to study enough in lockdown with schools closed.

And worryingly, two thirds said shutting schools has negatively impacted their mental health. Three in four revealed they feel anxious about exams being cancelled.

Amisha, 18, from Leicester, hopes to study economics at university but she is now reconsidering
Amisha hopes to study economics at university but she is now reconsidering

Amisha, 18, from Leicester, hopes to study economics at university but she is now reconsidering.

“Given my background, I don’t really think it’s affordable to be paying £9,000 a year for tuition fees, and thousands of pounds in accommodation for online lessons. It’s quite concerning for me because I’ve always wanted to go to university.”

She is also feeling frustrated after the government cancelled exams.

“It’s really making me anxious. It’s just really concerning for me, because these results are going to be the determinants of my future, so the fact that the government have not provided enough information for students and teachers, is really difficult for me to put trust in them, because you don’t know what to expect.”

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Schools in Skegness try to keep track of children whose education may slip through the cracks.

Amisha also struggles to find the right working environment at home. The Department for Education has been criticised for not supplying laptops to everyone who needs them, and four in 10 students who responded to the survey said they do not have access to reliable broadband.

She said: “That’s a really personal issue for me. I don’t have a study room and my room doesn’t have a desk either, so I’m either working in the kitchen or the living room, and those are the busiest places in my house – a lot of people come in and out and it’s just not the right environment for me to study in. Especially because everyone is at home as well. So it makes it that much more difficult to focus.

“I had difficulty with technology when there was the first initial lockdown because I share a laptop with my sisters and my mum and dad. I was only able to do this remote learning because when I did my internship with JP Morgan through the Social Mobility Foundation, I was provided a laptop. So that was for me, extremely fortunate.

“I really do think there is an unfairness. For example I know that private school children are much more fortunate than a lot of the students like me that go to state school.”

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What do schoolkids think of lockdown?

Amisha is lucky to have a supportive family, but social workers are increasingly concerned about other young people who may have a more chaotic home environment.

A survey from the British Association of Social Workers of over 200 social workers across England & Wales found 76% of social workers say referrals have increased in the period between when schools reopened in September and the latest lockdown, with 71% saying the referral rate is higher than at the same time in 2019.

Daniel Comach, principal social worker at Lambeth Council, south London, told us that in 20 years working as a social worker he has never seen the services under so much pressure and strain.

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“It’s a crisis situation. We’ve been in lockdown for nearly 10 months. There will be places that I think will really struggle to make sure that they’re giving children and families enough care and support that they’d like to provide.”

He added: “We have seen children and young people in really, really difficult situations.

“People that are on low incomes, spending time at home with each other all of the time with really limited resources has seen a real increase in the complexity and the harm that some of our children have experienced.”

Watch Sophy Ridge On Sunday live from 8.30am on Sunday, followed by Sophy Ridge: The Take at 9.30am. This week’s guests include Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab and former FBI director James Comey.

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