Isolation & inequality: the gap in education

UK MP Robert Halfon, chair of the Education Committee, weighs in on lost learning and mental health...
23 February 2021

Interview with 

Robert Halfon, Education Select Committee


A woman clutching hear head, with another set of arms covering her face.


Many children are struggling with the move to learning from home - and the pandemic seems to be widening the disparity between priveleged and disadvantaged kids. The experience may be affecting their social learning, particularly for young kids at a crucial stage of development. But many of these problems aren't new. Are governments going to start properly addressing them? UK MP Robert Halfon, chair of the Education Select Committee, joined Phil Sansom...

Robert - It has been nothing short of a disaster for children and young people, for the most part, over the past year. I've described it as the four horsemen of the education apocalypse, because we know there's been a huge loss of learning; mental health problems amongst young people are on the rise; there are ever increasing safeguarding hazards; and now we know from the respected Institute for Fiscal Studies that the average pupil could possibly lose around £40,000 of lost wages over their lifetime because of the effect of not being in school. So it is very serious, and that is why I've been campaigning to try and get all children back into school sooner rather than later.

Phil - Is the government perhaps too concerned with the cold part of learning that we just heard Barbara talking about, in terms of looking at exam results and exams that have been missed?

Robert - I actually agree completely with how important schools are, not just for academic learning, but socialisation, behavioural skills, teamwork, and other things. Schools nowadays are not just places of education; they're often a place where a child might get possibly the only good meal of the day. What we need to do is not just the proposed government's £1.3 billion catch up program, which is focused around academic catch-up, but perhaps extending the school day; to look at wellbeing, mental health, and sporting activities; inviting civil society into the schools, to give the children extra support and sporting activities that they've been denied over the past year.

Phil - We've been hearing from the Education Endowment Foundation, who've released a report talking about the attainment gap, which is the gap between the most and the least well-off kids. We actually spoke to head researcher, Jon Kay. Here's what he had to say.

Jon - There's a large attainment gap of pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds, a gap of around seven months. And this represents an increase on gaps prior to COVID.

Phil - And not all of this was COVID, because there was already a six month gap before, he says. So the measures that you're talking about - are they going to help narrow that gap?

Robert - We are entrenching a have and have-not society in terms of our children's learning. So of course the extra tuition program set out by the Prime Minister and Education Secretary will help. It means that tutor groups will be able to give not just online learning, but also help, teach, and support staff at school to try and ensure that these children catch up. But I will reiterate my key point: it isn't just academic catch up that they need. They need a huge amount of mental health support. Just to give you one example, we know that since the first lockdown, eating disorders amongst the younger generation have gone up by 400%. That is a harrowing figure to even think about, and that is partly due to school closures and social isolation. So I'd like to see mental health professionals, not just in some schools, but in every school across the country.

Phil - What is causing the disparities, and what are the factors behind some of these harrowing statistics that you're sharing?

Robert - In terms of academic attainment disparities, that is partly caused by the digital divide. We know that for a long time, hundreds of thousands of children didn't have access - and many still don't - to proper computers or tablets, or even a proper internet connection at home. We also know that whilst teachers and support staff have been doing everything possible to keep children learning - and we should pay tribute to them for that - there have been wide differences. And in many cases, children have had very varied experiences of remote learning. And then in terms of mental health, we know that because of children not being able to go outside, exercise, play, go to school, it has affected young people. In fact, it hasn't just affected young people; there's increasing reports of mental health problems amongst everyone. But of course, for younger children, it's much harder to deal with.


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