London’s children may be relatively resilient to the virus, but they are most vulnerable to long term damage from the pandemic.
For more than a decade now, London’s schools have been one of our greatest success stories. This success has meant that children growing up poor in London have better life chances than children growing up poor elsewhere in the UK. Economists and education specialists debate exactly why they do so well but no one disputes that they do — and in particular that they have been effective at reducing attainment gaps between different ethnic groups, as well as between disadvantaged students and their better off peers.
But since March, the majority of London’s pupils have had no time at school at all, and many of the rest have had a small fraction of their usual teaching time. It’s been the biggest disruption to our education system since the Blitz and evacuation in World War Two. This is a major risk to London’s ability to drive social mobility through our education system.
London’s teachers and other school staff have done their best to bring learning into pupils’ homes, but even the most herculean efforts can only take us so far. This is especially as children’s access to computers, broadband, parental attention and quiet space varies so much. My colleague Sara has written about the sharp and unequal risks of learning loss, but of course schools do more than teach, and these less visible activities can be even harder to replace.
Schools do a hugely important job in meeting children’s immediate needs by providing free school meals, sport and exercise, and friendships. Footballer Marcus Rashford’s intervention has safeguarded school meals vouchers, worth a modest £90 per eligible child, through the summer holidays, covering about 100,000 London children. Holiday hunger has long been a problem: one London school board was providing holiday meals as early as 1909. Over the last century it’s never really gone away, and has been worse in London where child poverty rates are the highest in the country.
Without these vouchers, holiday hunger could be far worse this year because the usual free and cheap holiday activities won’t be running, and because so many families have seen their income drop. Of course, children need healthy exercise as well as healthy food, and this is even harder to replace. This may be one of the biggest risks for London: even before the lockdown the proportion of 11 year olds who were obese was the highest in the country at 23 per cent, and many children live in flats without gardens, making it harder to run around.
For the children who need support the most, schools provide a vital early identification and prevention system. Special educational needs are often identified first by teachers, who help children get extra support inside school and out. We are likely to see delays of half a year for example in diagnosing speech and language issues – enough to turn a small problem into a bigger issue which needs much more intervention, and risks a child’s learning being stuck behind for years.
It seems very unlikely that many more children will get back to school before September, or that more than a tiny fraction of the usual holiday clubs – crucial for food and learning, as well as to support parents’ work – will be open in July and August. This is not just a problem for the education system. It is about almost every aspect of children’s lives. Money from government will help, in particular for social care and special needs support which must be delivered by experts, but coordination from government is probably even more important.
The pandemic response so far has shown that businesses and community groups in London are willing to support the people who need most help. London’s children may be relatively resilient to the virus, but they are most vulnerable to long term damage from the pandemic. They need everything from skills, time, space and IT resources, to food, books or just some toys for the summer holiday. Central and regional government must lead a coalition of the willing to provide this support, in order to safeguard a better future for London.
Claire Harding is Research Director at Centre for London.