IAN DUCKETT worries that the inequalities inherent in our education system thanks to social class will only be exacerbated by pandemic-related school closures.

In recent times I have been the designated safeguarding lead in three educational settings, including an alternative provision attended (or more often not) by some extremely vulnerable young people. In the present pandemic I have been working in the guise of educator.

Nothing I have experienced in these roles has challenged my view that barriers to learning are neither purely educational concerns to be addressed by teachers nor problems to be solved by social workers.

In almost all cases they existed and continue to exist on the cusp of education and social care.

At the heart of this argument is of course the ground-breaking legislation by Labour in 2003 and pockets of local initiatives that pre-dated and influenced it and which gave birth to the barely still breathing Sure Start project.

Every Child Matters (ECM), the radical government initiative for England and Wales that was launched in 2003, at least partly in response to the death of Victoria Climbie, is one of the most important policy initiatives ever introduced and development in relation to children and children’s services.

It led in the short-to-medium term to massive and progressive advances to the children and families agenda, leading to the Children Act 2004.

ECM covers children and young adults up to the age of 19, or 24 for those with disabilities, and it is important (especially perhaps in the time of Coronavirus) to remember its keynotes:

  • Stay safe
  • Be healthy
  • Enjoy and achieve
  • Make a positive contribution
  • Achieve economic well-being

As well as my own harrowing experiences and observations ranging from victims of abuse and violence to hunger and neglect, the Socialist Educational Association seminar, entitled Vulnerable Children and the Lock Down, on April 16 provided some valuable input.

One issue has been the provision of free school-meal vouchers. In usual, fake Tory so-called “value for money” solutions, it has been outsourced to a company with inadequate IT to deal with the demand.

There are families who are starving because of it. One of the children I have been dealing with in Norwich only engages at all so that he can get a daily Aldi meal-deal voucher. There are similar stories in a number of London boroughs.

The BBC’s Newsnight Special, Coronavirus: How Britain’s Invisible Children Are Being Forgotten, broadcast on April 9, also provided great insight into the social, economic and health crises. The numbers of at-risk children taking their crisis place in a school is frighteningly low and the most economically disadvantaged are without the free school-meals service, in some areas as low as 10 per cent.

Newington Green School in Islington was featured. It is in an area, though often seen as leafy and well-to-do, with some of the most deprived children in the Britain. The N1 postcode is on all kinds of cusps.

Simon Bailey, the National Police Chiefs’ Council lead on child protection, told Newsnight: “A worryingly low number of vulnerable children allocated a school place in England to keep them safe during the coronavirus crisis are actually turning up.”

In some areas just a quarter of the “at risk” children who are meant to be in school are attending, the programme was told. Norfolk is the only local authority to have reported an official figure. It is 13 per cent. In some areas the figure is below 10 per cent. A head teacher said that she believes those officially deemed “at risk” were “only the tip of the iceberg.”

Children who would probably be taken into care under normal circumstances, where a more specialised provision would be available, are having to be dealt with in a wholly inadequate mainstream provision. Teachers and social workers are on the front line and having to have contact with children and their parents at their own risk.

The remedy for this, of course, as it was in 2003 and always has been, is to achieve economic wellbeing for all of our young people.

This can only be done by preparing learners for employment and economic, independent living through training providers, proper apprenticeships and work.

The following characteristics would provide the evidence for young learners achieving economic well-being:

  • Examples of the development of learners’ selfconfidence;
  • Learners’ involvement and achievement in enterprise activities;
  • Learners developing employability skills;
  • Learners engaging in team-building and teamwork;
  • Learners’ access to, and take-up of, careers education, advice and guidance;
  • Personal-finance education;
  • Work experience;
  • Work-based learning.

Information and advice must be evidenced by a schedule of one-to-one interviews.

The real fear is that the inequalities inherent in a social-class rigged education system will be exacerbated by the pandemic school closure in a Gove-inspired wet dream: a well-resourced, affluent middle-class keeping up with and getting ahead of the school curriculum and an army of disadvantaged youngsters with no resources and no encouragement.

A work-related curriculum needs to be rooted in a meaningful skills-based curriculum with transferable skills as its spine and entitlement at its heart — and engagement, life-skills and literacy in its blood.

Ian Duckett is a Norwich based educator, member of National Executive Committee of Socialist Educational Association and EC member of Norfolk NEU. Socialist Edication Association

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