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The lockdown learning divide

5th February 2021 By Rob Stewart
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I rolled back the years the other day and tuned into a university lecture of sorts which focused on social mobility.

Called ‘Social mobility Prospects in a Post-Pandemic World’, the online session looked at how Covid-19 is widening the gap between haves and have-nots.

Hosted by the impressive Lee Elliot Major, the professor of social mobility at the University of Exeter, it left me not knowing whether to laugh or cry.

For starters, an illuminating talk set the ball rolling with statistics that confirmed my worst fears about the growing lockdown learning divide.

We learned that during the first lockdown pupils in private education were twice as likely to enjoy a full day of schooling compared to state school counterparts.

It talked about an education arms race in the shape of a private tutoring boom with children whose families are unable to pay for extra lessons falling behind.

The coronavirus pandemic is clearly going to have a dramatic impact on British society for many years to come as the economy tries to recover.

The inequalities that riddle our education system are going to have a profound effect later in life for a generation of young people.

It got me thinking back to my days at Moor End High School in Huddersfield from 1977-1982.

And it made me count my lucky stars that there was no such thing as lockdown when I was at school and it had nothing to with a lack of laptops or connectivity.

It was mainly due to the fundamental importance of regular, face-to-face contact with those inspirational teachers that made our state schools so important to our communities.

And there was another key element that make good schools great – and that’s the day-to-day contact with schoolmates from all walks of life in cultural and social melting pots like Moor End High School.

As the photos that accompany this blog demonstrate, I went back there a while back to show my appreciation for past efforts when I had my Huddersfield Town book published.

Anyhow, it’s because of my own experience that my heart goes out to young people growing up like I did on council estates who are missing out on school at the moment in and out of the classroom.

I have to admit that I left the Exeter University talk with mixed emotions as they discussed the “scarring of a generation”.

It predicted a big decline in social mobility and widening inequalities in terms of education and employment.

But the Exeter team also offered hope that with a bold approach there will be positive change.

Ideas include a wealth tax, guarantee of jobs for young people, lifelong training grants for non-university students and credible vocational courses.

But it ended on a high as I was taken back to my history lessons at Moor End High School.

There was talk about the need for a ‘New Deal’ like Frank D Roosevelt’s action to tackle the Depression in the USA, which we learned about for O-level history.

There was a rallying for us to ‘think big’ by Lee Major Elliott to limit the long-term social damage caused by lockdown.

One of the most interesting and most controversial ideas was prompted by a discussion around the abolition of private education.

What he proposed was the need to improve the quality of state education with proper investment – and that is surely something our Government needs to do after this pandemic by putting their money where their mouth is.

There’s sure to be a tough few years ahead, especially for those on the bottom rungs of the ladder but it’s encouraging to see Exeter University’s Centre for Social Mobility offering hope – and big, bold ideas for reform.