In so many areas of government decision making, the young are often overlooked – Covid was no exception. In a race to defeat the virus the wellbeing and educational attainment of young people was discounted. As government ministers became absorbed with saving those in their 80s, the life chances of our young people were swiftly being eroded.
Whatsapp messages leaked to The Telegraph last week between Matt Hancock, the then Health Secretary, and scores of others depict a Cabinet preoccupied by infighting and not always (as they claimed they were), ‘following the science’.
In August 2020, the Government introduced face masks in schools despite Sir Chris Whitty, England’s Chief Medical Officer, claiming there were “no very strong reasons to do so”. While face coverings, he added, had the “potential to interfere with teaching”. This policy would be in place for 16 months – ending not until January 2022.
Department for Education (DfE) data shows the devastating decline in attainment since the start of the pandemic. The percentage of pupils meeting the expected standard in writing, spelling, grammar, maths, and science have all fallen since 2019. DfE data shows 72 per cent of Key Stage 1 pupils met the expected standard for reading last year, compared with 78 per cent in 2019.
Least surprising, the effect of school closures has had the most shocking impact on the poorest children. Only half of disadvantaged students in KS1 reached the expected standard in reading, down from 62 per cent in 2019. In Key Stage 2, fewer than 6 in 10 reached the DfE’s expected standards in writing, literacy, and maths – the lowest rate since 2017.
The difference in academic achievements among students begin during these early primary school years, and their impact is intricate and long-lasting. These inequalities can have adverse effects on students’ educational engagement and accomplishment into further education, as well as their future opportunities in life. To put it plainly, the government abandoned the educational aspirations of a generation of young people who will probably face long-lasting challenges as a consequence.
Children whose parents can afford private tutoring to replace the lost learning of the Covid lockdowns will be just fine. It’s the young child who lives in an overcrowded tower block in the inner-city, who spent months staring at the same four walls, with no outdoor space and only poor internet access to keep them entertained; the child who already had a mountain to climb to reach their potential – that’s who will suffer. Shutting down schools was a grave mistake that will have far reaching consequences for social mobility, the full damage of which won’t be seen for years to come.
The mental health ramifications are arguably worse still. Figures from NHS England show the shocking extent to which mental health disorders among young people soared during the pandemic. In the years preceding Covid, 1 in 9 children aged 7 to 16 years had a probable mental health disorder. By 2020, this figure rose to 1 in 6. Additionally, children with a probable mental disorder were less likely to report ‘enjoyment of learning’ or ‘having a friend they could turn to for support’.
Schools were repeatedly closed during the Covid lockdowns despite a joint statement from the Chief Medical Officer and Deputy Chief Medical Officers conceding that “a lack of schooling increases inequalities, reduces the life chances of children and can exacerbate physical and mental health issues.”
“Very few, if any, children or teenagers will come to long-term harm from COVID-19 due solely to attending school”, they added. “This has to be set against a certainty of long-term harm to many children and young people from not attending school.”
Was this cost benefit analysis ever considered by Ministers? And if so, was it ruled that the wellbeing of children – who were unlikely to ever come to harm from the virus – was immaterial?
An inquiry into Covid is now underway. The effects of the pandemic on children were almost invisible from the original terms of reference from the Covid 19 inquiry. As the National Children’s Bureau said in a statement last year, “It is grimly ironic that children, so often an afterthought?during?the pandemic, became an afterthought for the inquiry set up to examine the response to the pandemic as well.”
Parents across this country, whose children have been markedly affected by misjudgements during the pandemic, should not rest until a comprehensive inquiry, with all those involved in decision making called upon to answer for their part, is completed.