Worries mount of inequality increase from UK school closures

LONDON (AP) — Six months away from the classroom, at least. That’s the prospect facing most children in the U.K., an absence that is likely to cause harm to their futures – particularly if they come from poorer households.

Concerns over inequality have grown following the government’s decision this week to scrap plans for all younger students in England to return to school before the summer break in July because of the difficulties in meeting coronavirus social distancing requirements.

In a wide-ranging report about inequalities published Thursday, the well-respected Institute for Fiscal Studies think tank warned that an “already prominent attainment gap” between children in England from wealthier families and those from more deprived ones is at risk of widening.

“Unless there is a concerted effort to help these children once schools reopen, these wider gaps may well become permanent,” the IFS said in the report, which is part of an ongoing analysis of inequalities chaired by the Nobel Prize-winning economist Professor Angus Deaton and funded by the Nuffield Foundation.

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It noted that fee-paying schools are almost twice as likely to be providing online teaching as those funded by the government attended by children from the 20% poorest families. Children from wealthier families also have better home facilities and are more likely to have private tutoring.

The authors of the report said poorer children in particular will need additional teaching once the crisis passes.

Although many English primary schools have been open all spring for the children of key workers — including health care professionals and delivery drivers — the Conservative government had planned to give all pupils the chance to return following months of home learning.

Last week, the very youngest and those in their last year of primary school were able to return. The plan was that all others would return in stages since schools were closed in mid-March.

Now, most of England’s 9 million or so schoolchildren will not go back to class before September, and maybe not even then if there is a new wave in coronavirus contagions. Secondary schools are not reopening except for some personal time for those set to embark on exams next year.

Anne Longfield, the Children’s Commissioner for England, a position that promotes the rights of children, is urging the government to swiftly back a summer support scheme to reduce inequality in education and to extend funding for free school meals to those eligible.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson said the government was considering such a move.

“It’s going to be a big summer of catch-up,” he said. “We’re going to keep making sure kids get the remedial help they need for the stuff that they’ve missed for months and months to come so that they they genuinely make up for lost time.”

Elsewhere in the U.K., Scotland and Northern Ireland have said schools won’t reopen until August, while Wales is making plans to welcome students back later this month.

Thursday’s report also found a widening in all measures of inequality – from wages to health and gender – amid the pandemic.

“In particular, some minority ethnic groups, people in certain key worker occupations, and those in low-income jobs — groups that often overlap — are at much greater risk,” said Mark Franks, Director of Welfare at the Nuffield Foundation.

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