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‘Levelling Up’ must mean children are not left behind by COVID-19 

Eliza Hardwick argues that without a coherent strategy to level up’ for the most disadvantaged children, repeated COVID-19 school closures will increase educational inequality. 

Education must be a core part of ‘building back better’ and the government’s stated aims around ‘levelling up’

In the UK talent is spread evenly but opportunity is not. The continuing COVID-19 pandemic has shone a spotlight on the UK’s long-standing vast regional inequalities and the widening divides in educational outcomes for children. During 2020 children were out of school for almost 6 months and, amidst a second national school closure, the unresolved damage to children’s education and well-being is intensifying  

As a former teacher, I have been reflecting on the long-term impacts of COVID-19 on educational inequality, children’s futures and ‘Levelling Up’. In particular, the government’s £4bn Levelling Up infrastructure fund must also go hand-in-hand with a commitment to education and skills.

Covid-19 is reinforcing and widening existing inequalities 

The pandemic has had a significant impact on the education and outcomes of all children. School closures have worsened the divide between children from deprived households and their more affluent peers. In some cases, this learning gap has risen by almost 50%.  

The differences in the amount of time that children spent on educational activities during the first 2020 lockdown were stark. Research by the Institute of Fiscal Studies showed that during 2020 lockdowns, children from more affluent families received better resources, more teacher engagement, private tuition and educational parental support than those from deprived families 

Many state schools have struggled to obtain the resources they need to shift rapidly from classroom to online learning.  Spending per pupil in private education is over three times that of state, which ensures the much-needed resources to adapt during school closures. These challenges for state schools are compounded by a decade of funding restraint and rising costs, including increases to teacher’s salaries and an urgent need to update old school buildings. 

Virtual learning is a particular challenge for the one third of children who have no device to access the internet, and for those living in overcrowded housing, without a suitable space to focus. Generally, children from more deprived backgrounds have struggled the most and have experienced the most worrying declines in educational attainment.  

These differences in the amount of time children spend learning effectively during school closures reduce some of the relative equalising force that schools and the national curriculum can exert. This will only be compounded by any future school closures and will have long-term impacts on children who have fallen behind, both in terms of their future attainment and their motivation to continue to learn. 

Tackling inequality through targeted education funding 

As the threat of COVID-19 recedes, levelling up will be impossible to achieve without a long-term comprehensive strategy and investment programme to reduce educational inequality and help deprived communities prosper. The government’s £4bn Levelling Up Fund demonstrates their commitment to the agenda, but the primary focus should be shifted from infrastructure projects to those focusing more heavily on people and communities  

The strategy for education should begin with prioritising the opening of schools, when the current lockdown begins to ease. Building on the £1bn emergency school ‘catch-up fund’ announced in June 2020, there should be further investment in creating a home remote learning environment for all children, including provision of both broadband and laptops to guard against future risks.  

Educational investment should target children in disadvantaged schools and communities, who have suffered most from historic funding reductions and are most at risk of falling further behind due to COVID-19. An effective approach to this could be by reassessing the National Funding Formula and Pupil Premium. The impact on children’s education could also form part of criteria to determine the distribution of the Levelling Up Fund.  

We are at a critical point to make the changes necessary to ensure children receive the education they deserve, and to make sure their prospects are not damaged irreversibly by COVID-19. Committing to improve education for all will help the government to level up, and benefit us all by supporting long-term growth and reducing inequality.

For more information on Mutual Ventures’ support for local authorities around Levelling Up click here.

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