The pandemic has intensified and laid bare the class divisions and racism entrenched within capitalist Britain. For many children from working-class families, the pandemic has meant rising hunger, isolation without any green space and in cramped and poor-quality housing, and thousands could not even access the bare minimum of online learning. Even before the pandemic began, progress on closing the attainment gap between rich and poor students in England had already halted for the first time in over a decade. RUBY MOST reports
Persistent poverty means poor education
This year’s ‘Education in England’ report published on 26 August by the Education Policy Institute (EPI) depicted the devastating effect that racism and class division have on working-class children’s education. The EPI’s analysis of government data found that:
- ‘Disadvantaged’ secondary school pupils were 18.1 months of learning behind their classmates when they finished their GCSEs, the same gap as five years ago;
- ‘Disadvantaged’ primary school pupils were 9.3 months behind, an increase in the learning gap for the first time since 2007;
- ‘Disadvantaged’ early years pupils remained 4.6 months behind;
- Those in ‘persistent poverty’ (children receiving free school meals (FSM) for over 80% of their schooling) were 22.7 months behind their classmates, double the gap of those with a ‘low persistence of poverty’ (FSM for 20% of schooling);
- Gypsy/Roma pupils were 34 months behind their White British classmates at GCSE level;
- Black Caribbean pupils were 10.9 months behind their White British classmates, an increase of 4 months in the last eight years;
- Progress in closing the attainment gap for children with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) has been slowing since 2015.
This increasing inequality in education will come as no surprise to the working-class families who have been on the receiving end of the brutal austerity of the past decade. Stagnating wages, increasingly insecure work, rising food prices, slashed funding for public services, derisory benefits and the racist immigration system which restricts migrant families’ access to benefits and housing, have left many struggling to survive. The inability of the capitalist system to provide decent social housing, secure work and social services means increasing numbers of children come to school without even their most basic needs met. No child can learn while these needs go unmet.
Pandemic hits poor children hardest
The pandemic has accelerated this educational inequality. According to research published on 1 September 2020 by the National Foundation for Educational Research, while the average estimate for lost learning during the national lockdown was three months, teachers in the most deprived areas in England were over three times as likely to report their pupils being an additional month or more behind in their learning, compared to teachers in the most affluent areas.
The report also showed that online learning is still inaccessible to many, with three-fifths of staff reporting that they either supplied their own camera for teaching online, or did not have access to this equipment at all. Even if schools have the right equipment, 28% of pupils had limited access to the necessary technology to access online learning – a problem which was worse in more deprived areas.
The report also found that Black and Minority Ethnic (BAME) and poorer children were more likely to not attend school, as their parents feared for their safety. Working class families in these ‘most deprived areas’ have been completely exposed to the dangers of Covid-19. Some are housed in cramped and unsuitable temporary accommodation by their local councils making isolating from one another impossible. Many will have parents working in public facing roles who are unable to work from home so they have been more likely to become seriously ill and die from the virus. The virus is still being allowed to rip through the population, and hollow reassurances from the government that schools are safe for all children to return is belied by the fact that by 17 September, just three weeks after full reopening, already at least 1,118 schools reported outbreaks to Public Health England.
The gross inequality between those able to afford the basic necessities for their children and those who are not, those who have a home where their children can study and those who do not, is set to worsen with the wave of unemployment due to be unleashed over the next few months. The only answer is a determined and independent fight back by the working class.
Students stand up
On 4 August, The Scottish National Party (SNP) government awarded grades generated by the Scottish Qualifications Authority algorithm in lieu of exams cancelled this year due to the pandemic. Nearly a quarter of teacher-recommended results were downgraded, which disproportionately affected poorer working-class pupils. Just a week later, after widespread student demonstrations, SNP education secretary John Swinney announced that the algorithm-generated results would be scrapped, and higher teacher assessed grades could be awarded.
Insistent that the algorithm being used to generate grades in England would not have the same problems, the Department for Education (DfE) stuck to using an algorithm rather than teacher assessed grades, which they accused of leading to unfair inflating of results. Back on 31 March, education secretary Gavin Williamson ordered Ofqual, the exam regulator, to ensure that results followed ‘a similar profile to that in previous years’. Results were to be standardised against the last three years of results for each subject in each school, so pupils who were set to attain higher grades than those at their school had done previously had their results artificially lowered. The same rule did not apply to small classes, meaning students attending private schools were far less likely to have their teacher-recommended grades marked down.
Despite being warned many times by the Education Select Committee and former senior officials that the algorithm would at most be only 75% accurate, and the process of standardisation likely to unfairly disadvantage BAME and poorer students, Williamson insisted to the Sunday Times on 15 August that there would be ‘No U-turn, no change’.
On 16 August, hundreds of A level students marched to the office of the DfE and Downing Street to demand Williamson’s resignation, chanting ‘justice for the working class!’ and ‘fuck the system/algorithm!’ after Ofqual’s algorithm downgraded 39.1% of teacher predicted grades by at least a whole grade. Elite private schools benefitted the most from the results and increased the proportion of students achieving A-A* grades by double that of those from state schools.
After the protests outside the DfE as well as local demonstrations up and down the country, Williamson announced the U-turn on Monday 17 August, pretending he had only just become aware of the problems ‘over the Saturday and Sunday’. Trying to worm his way out of taking any responsibility for the debacle, and cling on to his cabinet position, Williamson blamed Ofqual for the unfair grades, and took credit for the U-turn for which Ofqual was responsible. Ofqual’s chief executive later stepped down.
Racist police out of our schools!
The recent wave of anti-racist resistance in Britain has once again brought to light the racism of the British state – in particular the racist police force and the disproportionate criminalisation, harassment and imprisonment of BAME people. A report by Runnymede, a race equality charity, published this June exposed an ‘increasing police presence in schools’ leading to black and Asian children being stopped and searched within their own schools, as well as harassed by police in the streets. Under the guise of tackling ‘knife crime’ and preventing so-called extremism, police presence in secondary schools is criminalising BAME and working-class children for minor disciplinary issues.
The growing attainment gap between Gypsy/Roma, Black Caribbean pupils and their white classmates is a direct result of the racism and discrimination built into the British schooling system. Black Caribbean and Gypsy/Roma children, along with the poorest students, are more likely than their peers to be both temporarily and permanently excluded from school. Zero-tolerance behaviour policies championed by the Tory government also target black children, for such minor rule breaking as kissing their teeth or wearing their hair in braids.
The inequality in capitalist Britain’s education system is born of its racist and divided class society. An urgent movement for access to a decent education for all must also fight against poverty, racism, poor housing, and for a socialist system which can meet the needs of the people.
Many families have been pushed into food poverty by the pandemic, affecting children’s mental and physical health. Comparing April 2020 with April 2019, The Trussell Trust reported an 89% increase in their distributed food parcels, and an 175% increase by the Independent Food Aid Network. Food banks reported that many families who previously donated to food banks are now themselves coming for assistance. Many families have been forced to change their diets due to financial hardship, changes which will damage their health. Data from July 2020 from the National Food Strategy Review showed more children eating junk food and snacks and fewer fruit and vegetables during lockdown, with a larger effect amongst poorer children. A Northumbria University study showed that before lockdown 25% of children missed at least one meal a day and after schools closed, 35% of children missed one meal and 10% missed more than one a day. More young people and people with physical or mental health conditions are using food banks. The charity Food Foundation found that food insecurity in households with children has nearly doubled since the start of the pandemic.