OPINION: The disadvantage gap has widened among children in pandemic

It looks like pupils are set to return to school in early March

Children with special educational needs, those from low-income families, the vulnerable and disadvantaged have suffered disproportionately in the pandemic - Credit: Getty Images/iStockPhoto

January 2022 will go down as the month when our school staff and children were absent with Covid at unprecedented levels.

In the last week of January, one in eight primary school children across the country were infected with Covid according to the ONS. This is the highest prevalence of any age group at any stage in the pandemic.  

In Suffolk, rates of infection have caused widespread disruption in our schools. School staff, some of whom had already had the Delta variant, have been infected with Omicron and absence rates have been at an all time high.

In just one month, some of our primary schools have had more than half of their staff test positive.  With such high numbers it has been impossible to keep classrooms and learning going in the same way and staff have demonstrated heroically how adaptable, flexible, cooperative and resilient they are.  

At the same time, it has seemed strange that Covid restrictions have been lifted across the country when, for many of us, the situation has been worse than ever.  In early February we are being told that we are over the peak.  

Despite huge efforts to keep classrooms open in some form or another, learning is disrupted for children when familiar adults are not there, the curriculum has been adjusted and many are joining lessons remotely because they are isolating.  It’s another hit for those who are vulnerable or from disadvantaged backgrounds and it is these groups of children who we are most worried about.  

When we analyse pupil achievement data in schools, we separate out groups and individuals to check how they are doing compared to others.  We look closely at the data for children with special educational needs, those from low income families, the vulnerable and disadvantaged.   

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All of these groups have suffered disproportionately over the pandemic and the data shows us that they are further behind in their learning, attendance is poorer and they are more likely to be suffering wellbeing and mental health issues.  The disadvantage gap has widened.

In the government’s new Levelling Up White Paper, Suffolk has been designated an Educational Investment Area (EIA).  This is a designation awarded to all of the areas that previously had an ‘Opportunity Area’ within them, as well as other places around the country that have ‘lagged behind’ - where public services and opportunities ‘are weakest’, where a ‘sense of community, local pride and belonging… have been lost’ and leaders and communities ‘have lacked local agency’ (Levelling up the United Kingdom, policy paper).   

We do not know if Suffolk would be an EIA if it wasn’t for the Ipswich Opportunity Area, my guess is that it probably wouldn’t.  We don’t yet know enough about what this will mean for us.  

The White Paper makes the case that attempts to tackle geographical disparities in the UK over the past century have failed because they have ‘tended to be short term, lacked scale and coordination and were hamstrung by a lack of data and effective oversight.’ 

Whether we are going to call it ‘levelling up’ or ‘building back better’ what we need is a long term approach and the funding to make a difference to the lives of the children who have suffered most because unless we start with them we will never achieve our goals.  

There is much to be learnt from the work of the Ipswich Opportunity Area over the last few years - a locally-led, government-funded project to improve social mobility which has undoubtedly started to make a difference.  But the funding for that initiative is set to end this summer and we don’t know if the EIA will make any difference to that.

Meanwhile, back in the classroom, we will continue to focus our efforts on those who have suffered the most and we will seek out any help that we can.  School staff are digging deep at present but we will be relentless in our mission to achieve equity for every child whether it’s under this policy initiative or the next.  

- Clare Flintoff is the CEO of ASSET Education, which runs a number of primary schools across Suffolk.