Keeping schools closed in England will widen inequalities – study | Politics

Keeping schools closed to tackle the coronavirus pandemic is almost certain to increase educational inequalities between children from the richest and poorest families, according to a study, as debate intensifies over the government’s push to reopen schools in England.

Survey data from more than 4,000 families in England analysed by the Institute for Fiscal Studies found that by the end of this month, children in better-off families will have received a week and half more home learning than children in the poorest households during the closures.

The government is pressing for primary schools in England to reopen for some year groups from 1 June. The Cabinet Office minister, Michael Gove, said on Sunday: “The clear scientific and clinical advice is that it is safe to have schools reopen, accompanied with social distancing.”

He said schools could implement staggered lunch breaks and arrival times, seat children at individual desks, and teach them in classes of 15 at most, each class supervised by one adult.

Asked on the BBC’s Andrew Marr show what he would say to local authorities that have questioned the plan, Gove said: “I respectfully ask them to think again. If you really care about children, you’ll want them to be in schools. You will want them to be learning. You will want them to have new opportunities. So look to your responsibilities.”

Teaching unions and headteachers as well as senior opposition politicians implored the government to release in full the scientific advice used to make its decisions. At a meeting to explain the advice last week, the unions received a commitment from Sir Patrick Vallance, the government’s chief scientific adviser, to publish the advice as a priority, but as yet no date has been set.

Labour’s deputy leader, Angela Rayner, said: “We urge the government to publish the science, and to ensure the test, track and isolate is in place.”

Geoff Barton, the general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, told members he had been reassured by last week’s science briefing, and the union was “able to support the government’s ambition” with caveats. But Barton also said the union would continue to stand by headteachers who were unable to reopen their schools by 1 June.

The IFS survey highlighted a string of advantages enjoyed by children from affluent families at both state or independent schools, including easier access to computers and the internet at home, more private or family tuition and the use of their own study space.

“These differences will likely widen pre-existing gaps in test scores between children from different backgrounds,” said Lucy Kraftman, a research economist at the IFS and one of the report’s authors.

But the survey showed little enthusiasm among parents for a return to the classroom: just 39% of primary school parents and 45% of secondary school parents said they would send their children back if they had a choice.

While the governments of Scotland and Wales have ruled out reopening on 1 June – other than to children of key workers and vulnerable pupils – the Westminster government showing few signs of backing away from the date announced by Boris Johnson.

Slough council because the latest local authority in England to downplay 1 June as a start date for their maintained schools, echoing councils in Hartlepool, Gateshead and Liverpool.

In a message from Slough’s head of children’s services, seen by the Guardian, parents were told: “Many schools in Slough have said they will not be welcoming more children into school until 8 June at the earliest. Please do not send your children to school unless your child’s school has contacted you directly to offer a place.”

The IFS survey found that children from better-off families were spending 30% more time each day on educational activities – including 75 minutes a day on average more on school work – compared with those from the poorest fifth of households, with the gap widening to 90 minutes among primary school pupils.

Across primary and secondary schools, children in the richest 20% of households have been spending 5.8 hours a day on what the IFS defined as learning activities, while those in the poorest quintile are spending 4.5 hours a day.

Jules White, the headteacher of Tanbridge House school in Sussex, described the IFS’s results as “powerful but completely unsurprising”. He said: “If government and other groups are so worried about the disproportionately terrible effects of the lockdown on vulnerable children and families, why isn’t there a complete focus on getting these children back to school first?

“Schools have been looking after the most disadvantaged families with scant support for years. We are not about to stop now. Let us get on safely and intelligently for every child and every family.”

Paul Whiteman, the general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, said: “This is an important study. Lockdown has provided a unique opportunity for policymakers to reboot their attitude to disadvantage and equality of opportunity. The disadvantage gap was huge before lockdown. Schools have taken action since to ensure that any further disadvantage has been minimised.

“Without doubt, education plays a key role in navigating a route out of poverty, but a lack of education does not in itself cause poverty. Other social factors do that, and to date they have consistently worked against schools efforts. We need to rethink of how we tackle inequality in this country.”

The IFS also offered a “stark warning” to the government in how it handles reopening schools. Parents on higher incomes were the most willing to send their children back into the classroom when the lockdown ends, rising to around 50% in the wealthiest quintile. But only a third of those from the poorest 20% of households were in favour.

“This risks leaving the children least able to cope with home learning remaining at home even as their better-off classmates return to school,” said Alison Andrew, a senior IFS researcher and one of the authors.

The survey was completed by more than 4,000 parents of children aged between four and 15 at school in England, between 29 April and 12 May. Johnson’s announcement that primary schools could reopen from 1 June for reception, year 1and year 6 classes was made on 9 May, although the date had been reported widely the week before.

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