The Journal for Executive and Governance Leaders

Addressing the post-pandemic widening disadvantage gap

The question of how we rebuild our economy, infrastructure and continue to work towards a fair and equitable society following the COVID-19 pandemic must be the greatest challenge faced by any post-war government.

While the UK government has provided a relatively generous package of support for businesses and the self-employed during this period of lockdown, the reality is that we are heading into a recession which is predicted to be much worse than the 2008 financial crisis.

This leaves policy makers with a complex set of problems. How can government rebuild the economy with an eye-watering deficit? And on the issue of equity, child poverty was increasing and the disadvantage gap in attainment widening before the pandemic. The consequences of COVID-19 have made those challenges greater.

It is clear from existing evidence that time spent outside of school will have a negative impact on attainment overall, but also on the gap between disadvantaged pupils and their peers. Children from poorer backgrounds are less likely to have access to the technology required for home learning but, more fundamentally, they are less likely to have physical space to do work and the family environment to support them.

The government must therefore prioritise policies which seek to minimise the impact of COVID-19 on the most disadvantaged children. In a context of tighter spending, this will require politicians to make difficult decisions about how to target additional resources.

Last month, the Education Policy Institute published a series of recommendations for government, which sought to strike the right balance between providing support, being fiscally prudent and, above all, reflecting the evidence.

Our first set of proposals targets additional funding to disadvantaged pupils through the Pupil Premium – for select groups and for a minimum of a year.

We have consistently made the case that the early years is one of the most important, yet neglected, phases of development and it is particularly crucial for disadvantaged children. We estimate that around 40 per cent of the disadvantage gap at age 16, is already present by the age of 5. To mitigate against that gap from widening further, we propose that the Early Years Pupil Premium should be doubled from £310 to £620.

The Pupil Premium should also be doubled for those who will be in Year 1, Year 7 and Year 11 in September 2020, reflecting that these are crucial years in terms of knowledge acquisition, transition and preparation for national exams. We also recommend doubling the Pupil Premium for Looked After Children in all year groups.

We also recognise that children could return to school with a range of wellbeing needs, as a result of a long break from school, possible abuse or neglect over that period or having suffered bereavement. Existing evidence on exclusions and unexplained exits from schools find that the most vulnerable pupils, those with special educational needs, those from poor backgrounds and those who are looked after by the state, are more likely to be moved from their school. It is therefore important that the DfE issues fresh guidance to schools about the need to avoid exclusions and that both the Department and local authorities monitor closely any increase in the number of children being moved out of individual schools.

But we know that schools alone cannot pick up the pieces of this global crisis. The pandemic has highlighted just how important schools have been in supporting the welfare and wellbeing of pupils since the austerity cuts of the past decade have reduced significantly other early intervention and social care services. The government therefore needs to provide additional and sustained funding to wider children and young people’s services, including for early intervention services, youth services and social care.

Children from poorer backgrounds are less likely to have access to the technology required for home learning but, more fundamentally, they are less likely to have physical space to do work and the family environment to support them.

Natalie Perera

Education for students aged 16-19 has been subject to a plethora of reforms over the past few decades and, since 2010, it has suffered the largest cut in funding compared with any other education phase. Not only will young people in this phase have faced lost learning time, they will also be entering a contracted labour market due to the looming recession. To mitigate against this, we set out a package of measures for the government. This includes, doubling the amount of disadvantaged funding for students who will be in Year 13 in September, providing funding for post-16 pupils in Alternative Provision, introducing maintenance grants and extending the duration of vocational courses. Taken together, we think these measures could form the basis of an “Education for Recovery” package from the government for the post-16 sector.

There is no doubt that the government will continue to face a number of difficult decisions in the next spending review. While our proposals mostly relate to 2020-21, the government will need to use the spending review to consider whether continued, targeted, support should be embedded over the longer term.