The real education gap in this country is not the days missed by lockdown; it’s inequality

High Street, Eton College
Kazimierz Mendlik / CC BY-SA (

Former Ofsted chief inspector Sir Michael Wilshaw says children have “missed a huge amount of school and there are going to be adverse consequences.” He says the government is going to have to negotiate with teachers and say, “We’re considering bringing in schools over weekend periods, over holiday periods or extending the school day” and that schools should make a commitment to ensure teachers and pupils attend this extra schooling or some children will face having to repeat the school year.

Sir Michael is right to highlight the education children have missed during lockdown; some more so than others. There is an education gap in this country and it’s one that has been enlarged during lockdown. But that gap is not one that can simply be fixed by extra afterschool classes in the evenings and at weekends. The education gap is more fundamental than that. With schools poised to reopen across the UK, we must plan to close this gap properly, to harness the potential of all our citizens. If the prime minister is wanting to ‘level up’ between different areas of the country, he could start with education, our national investment in the next generation.

Sir Michael Wilsaw, former chief inspector at OFSTED

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Britain’s private schools educate approximately six per cent of the country’s children. The problem is what influence this six per cent go on to yield over British public life. According to research, this small elite continues to dominate the UK’s leading professions, taking top jobs in fields as diverse as the law, politics, medicine and journalism. We have, in effect, two nations: the privately educated and the rest. Data for 2018 shows that the average day-school fees at a prep school were £13,026 per year. Eton at £40,668 tops the league, closely followed by Harrow £40,050 and Winchester £39,912. Meanwhile UK Government funding per pupil in state schools was £4,700 for primary and £6,200 for secondary schools. The average salary in the UK in 2019 was £29,009. The vast majority of families in the UK therefore depend on government investment in their children’s education.

Covid-19 will increase the education gap for the UK’s children. As we enter the ninth week of school closures, it emerges that 34 per cent of school age children 5–16 years do not have their own computer. This is a major disadvantage given that contact with education and teachers delivering it is now online.

Educational success is closely linked to family income. A study from the Education Policy Institute states that the attainment gap for persistently disadvantaged pupils, those on free school meals for 80 per cent of their school careers, stood at 24.3 months by the age of 16; that’s over two years of learning in twelve years of compulsory education. This gap will remain with these pupils for the rest of their lives and will influence how they bring up their children and their children’s children. The education attainment gap influences many other areas of private and national life,

If the government is committed to levelling up across the country, we cannot return to the status quo. The gap will not be reduced by forcing more of the same onto disadvantaged pupils and their families. If the government is now being ‘led by the science’ in health matters, why should it not be ‘led by the research’ in education matters? This could and should bring public school levels of investment on every child in the UK.

What difference could that increased investment make?

The government could start by recommitting to SureStart centres to support families that need it in every community in the UK. Parenting support from the very start of child’s journey will pay dividends later in terms of health and educational outcomes.

We could and should feed every child at school a healthy, balanced breakfast and dinner, every day, free at the point of delivery. Children cannot concentrate in class and on tasks set by their teachers if they are hungry.

Every child should have a laptop or tablet to give them year-round access to online learning. The government has a national online education platform, it’s called BBC Bitesize. It should recognise this expertise and commit to supporting educational excellence for all. It should stop the political sniping and threats to future funding of this national treasure. The BBC has had a better Covid pandemic than the government. This should be recognised in future funding and commitment.

The government should commit to class sizes found in the most prestigious private schools to give all children equal time with their teachers and tutors. There is also a need for major government investment in the performing arts to prevent this important UK industry becoming the preserve of the privately educated.

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Before the lockdown, the prime minister acknowledged there were strong feelings in a nation divided by Brexit. He talked about “unleashing the potential” of the UK. He is uniquely placed to do something about this. After eight weeks of a locked-down Britain, he can change the educational and economic landscape of the country. Boris Johnson wants his place in history to be Churchillian. He wants to be remembered as a great statesman of vision and courage who left his mark on the future of the UK for generations to come. This is his moment. He has the parliamentary majority; does he have the personal ambition that he claims? History will tell.

As for Wilshaw’s argument that teachers and pupils should make up for the missed education by attending summer and weekend school … this will do little to close the underlying education gap and is unlikely to motivate teachers or pupils contemplating a return to school. Sorry Sir Michael, we need more radical measures to level up our education system. If this were an essay, the comments would read, “Could do better!”