A new report from the Education Endowment Foundation has found that lockdowns have had a negative impact on young children’s speech and language skills. This will come as little surprise considering children have been prevented over the past year from taking part in previously normal activities, such as play dates and seeing grandparents, while the wearing of face masks has deprived young children from normal conversational experiences.
Worryingly, over three-quarters (76 per cent) of schools surveyed believe the September 2020 intake needed more support with their communication skills and nearly all schools (96 per cent) said they were concerned about speech and language development.
The potential for a long-term impact is huge; children with speech and language difficulties from a young age are more likely to struggle with reading and less likely to find employment.
Research from the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) notes how lockdowns may further exasperate educational inequalities between those from richer and poorer backgrounds. The research suggests that children from better-off backgrounds had access to schools that provided more active provision, such as online classes and access to videoconferencing with teachers.
The Tail, a book about how England’s schools fail 20 per cent of pupils, asserts that children from well-off backgrounds arrive at school better prepared for learning, and the gap is not closed by our current system. Still more concerning is the fact that falling behind at a young age means a child is very unlikely to catch up with his or her better-off peers. Recent reports suggest that lockdowns have only deepened already inbuilt disadvantages for less well-off children in our school system. We must now start to reverse this concerning trend.
It is unlikely that traditional Labour or Conservative Party policy will fix the issue. In the run up to the 2019 General Election the former proposed a ‘National Education Service’, an exercise of largesse with public money that would have created a state monolith. The latter, on the other hand, is still largely in a nostalgia induced haze where grammar schools are seen as the silver bullet. It is likely that neither of these policies will help achieve educational equality and rising school standards.
If a direct state subsidy remains the primary source of school funding, we will always see well-off parents move to areas with better schools. This compounds neighbourhood effects, where children from more deprived areas suffer lower educational attainment, influenced by their peers, their exposure to crime and the resources offered by the neighbourhood i.e. quality of the school. Therefore, money alone will not make the schools in left behind areas better or fix the attainment gap.
A better system of school choice, supporting the individual to choose the school that their child attends and replacing the current preference system might well aid in closing the gap for less well-off pupils. Such a system was envisaged by Milton Friedman, who noted that competition would be a much better way of meeting demand than a state planned arrangement.
This could be done by administering a system of education vouchers, where parents are given a voucher with a monetary value to pay for their child’s education. Parents would then have greater autonomy to choose the school that they wanted, and schools would be more responsive to market demand. By forcing poorly performing schools to compete with higher performing schools for voucher money, standards would likely rise, benefiting all children regardless of socio-economic background. Such a move would also encourage innovation, as schools would compete for pupils.
Recent evidence has found that competition increases performance. In Sweden, increased access to independent schools through a voucher system saw both short and long-term attainment improvements. In addition, OECD research notes that in countries where vouchers are used, the socio-economic gap between pupils in public and private schools is narrowed significantly. This means that children from poorer backgrounds are accessing a better education.
There are clear weaknesses in the implementation of a more market-based approach in some countries, such as Chile. However, they must be placed into context and learned from. Chile has attempted a voucher system while still allowing schools to interview parents and enforce entry tests. Such practices distort a free market in education. The former is already unlawful in the UK and the latter defeats the purpose of incentivising schools to be more productive.
As evidence shows that lockdowns have only compounded educational problems for children, and that disadvantaged children will be disproportionately impacted, it is time we reformed our education system. A system utilising education vouchers, allowing parents more autonomy and greater freedom of choice would drive up standards and give children access to a better education.