Below is an edited version of Lucy Kellaway's article, originally published by The Spectator on 18th June 2019. You can find the full article on The Spectator website, here.
It’s Monday at 9 a.m. and secondary schools in England have just re-opened their gates to students in Years 10 and 12. I have been looking forward to this moment for 13 long weeks, since that frightening afternoon in March when my colleagues and I gathered around a computer in the staff room and saw a healthier-looking Boris Johnson declare he was shutting schools.
But today I’m not at the comprehensive in Hackney where I teach economics welcoming back my students with a rousing lesson on the financial devastation caused by the crisis. I’m surplus to requirements and am still marooned at home. What ‘re-opening’ means is that a mere quarter of Year 10 — about 40 students — have turned up to school, where they will have a short day and learn mainly maths, English and science.
My school, like every other in the land, has followed government orders and done a gold-plated risk assessment to ensure these students will be safe. It has laid out rules covering the movement of every teenager for every second of the truncated school day. With barely 40 of them in at any given time, occupying a space built for 750, the risk of anyone picking up the virus must be smaller than the risk of falling downstairs and cracking their heads on the tiled floor below. It must be far lower than the risk of acquiring Covid-19 at Tesco or Primark; and in a different league of magnitude to the risk of having picked it up last weekend on nearby London Fields, where the crowds of picnickers, revellers and drinkers reminded me of Glastonbury.
While the health danger to these few students of returning to school is minuscule, the risk to the others of staying at home in their bedrooms, where they have been incarcerated for three months on Google Classroom or similar, is monumental.
According to the Education Endowment Foundation, the damage inflicted on educational equality by closing schools has undone the work not of a term but of a decade. Not only is the gap yawning between students in my class — it is widening between north and south, rich and poor, and between state and private schools. Research by UCL Institute of Education shows that in the south-east, 28 per cent of kids are working for more than four hours a day, compared with less than 10 per cent in the north-east. The children on free school meals are half as likely as richer ones to be working hard. And a third of private schools are offering four or more hours of lessons a day, five times as many as state schools.
‘Laptops!’ people have been crying. ‘The poorest kids don’t have laptops or internet connections!’ This is true, and the government and some schools have been trying to redress this, but online teaching is not a perfect solution. Even my students with laptops are losing the will to live as this situation goes on — and I can’t blame them. In teenage bedrooms all over the country parents may think their kids are doing their economics work on income inequality. But they’re not. They’re on Fortnite.
The damage done to students’ mental health is less well chronicled, but no less serious. I phone a teenage boy to find out why he has done no work. It’s 3 p.m. and he’s still in bed. His once-upon-a-time cheery voice is flat and he talks slowly in monosyllables. Adolescence is rubbish at the best of times. Try it in a tiny, impoverished flat with no outdoor space, nowhere to go, no one to see and nothing to do, with the guilt of the god-awful slides on Google Classroom hanging over you. All of my teacher acquaintances report conversations like this, or worse.
There is only one shred of comfort. Four years ago, when I set up Now Teach, a charity to persuade older people to retrain as teachers, I did not think it would take a pandemic to do my PR work for me. Possibly it’s the experience of home-schooling children, or possibly it’s the way many other careers now seem precarious or pointless — either way, professionals are now queuing around the block to become teachers. At each of our recent information evenings (packed-out Zoom meetings), I’ve told teaching hopefuls what lockdown has taught me. It is not just that education matters more than anything — I knew that already — but that old-fashioned schooling is the best way of delivering it. In the past few months we’ve seen what happens to students, especially vulnerable ones, when you take away the physical presence of teachers, routine, social interaction, detentions and school dinners.
And as for me, I’m not poor or disadvantaged, I don’t have special needs, I do have a functioning laptop and internet connection, and I’m not 15. But I desperately want my school life back, too.
The damage inflicted on educational equality by closing schools has undone the work not of a term but of a decade.