Coronavirus will rob the poorest young people of opportunities

The current coronavirus crisis is likely to have significant repercussions for social mobility. This simply means the chances open to young people from poorer homes to get on in life will be severely compromised.

A whole generation risk missing out on important parts of their education, before entering a world of work badly damaged by the economic consequences of the pandemic. The country’s poorest risk losing out the most.

This is all against a backdrop of already low social mobility in the UK, with those born to wealthy parents highly likely to gain the best paid jobs in adulthood, while those from poorer homes all too often struggling to climb the ladder.

Education is one of the most valuable tools we have to promote social mobility.  But lockdown has posed significant challenges in making sure access to educational opportunities is fair – right from nursery school all the way through to university and beyond. 

Inequality kicks in from a very early age, with poorer children already 11 months behind their peers when they start school. This fact is likely to be exacerbated by the current closure of most nurseries and early years settings, which are crucial in helping poorer children get off to a good start. 

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Now that schools have been closed for the majority of children – with the prospect of many remaining closed for the rest of the school year, other than for a few key year groups – there is a real risk of the attainment gap widening between disadvantaged pupils and the rest. Children from working-class backgrounds are far less likely to have reliable access to the internet, and less likely to have a suitable laptop or tablet to work on.  

They are also more likely to rely on the academic and pastoral support offered by schools, and more likely to see their performance dip when out of the classroom for long periods. Given that disadvantaged students are already twice as likely to leave school without English and Maths GCSEs, an extended time away from schools is a big concern.  

Our recent polling has also shown that less than half of parents feel confident teaching their children at home. Middle class parents are not only more likely to feel comfortable with home schooling, but also to spend more on their children’s home education (books, tuition and online materials) than working class parents. 

The impact of cancelling this year’s exams needs to be monitored closely. It is welcome that the government has decided not to award results based entirely on predicted grades, as poorer pupils tend to have their grades under-predicted and go on to do better in real exams. 

However, we also know that teacher assessments can unconsciously work against low income children too. The government, exam boards and schools must ensure that this year’s students are rewarded fairly for their efforts.

Significantly widening access to high quality online tuition to minimise the impact of school closures is an important step, as is ensuring access to technology for pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds

This is particularly so for A-Level pupils whose admission to university relies on their grades. In fact, it is more important than ever for universities to take account of students’ backgrounds when deciding who to admit next year.  

So-called ‘contextual offers’, which recognise a young person’s potential and the different circumstances they have faced, will help universities to spot the brightest and best (rather than simply the best supported) in these difficult times. 

Students at university are also likely to face financial hardship in the short term due to the continued closure of pubs, restaurants and shops – places where many low and middle income students work to supplement their income. 

Longer term, the impact of the UK lockdown on the wider economy will be far-reaching, especially for the poorest. The usual routes for young people to access the workplace will be heavily affected: apprenticeships are likely to be cut, paid internship opportunities likely to diminish, and the number of graduate-level jobs available is likely to reduce substantially.  

Social mobility is always harder when overall opportunities are waning.

We know, for example, that young people from better-off backgrounds will still go to university even when economic times are bad, whereas poorer students are less likely to take risks without the safety net of family money and an uncertain jobs market. 

However, the situation is not hopeless. The crisis as a whole has shown what can be achieved when people pull together. There are several things the government and others can do (and are doing) to ensure young people from poorer homes do not fall further behind. 

Significantly widening access to high quality online tuition to minimise the impact of school closures is an important step, as is ensuring access to technology for pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds.

The government’s decision to introduce a laptop scheme for poorer students is a good first step, but it’s important that it’s implemented as soon as possible to make a real tangible difference to disadvantaged students already falling behind because of a lack of technology.

It will also be important to think how best to help low income children when schools do eventually return, whether through catch-up classes or other means. 

And for older children, guaranteeing fair access to higher education and protecting apprenticeships will help ensure the class of 2020 has the life-changing opportunities enjoyed by previous generations.

These are unchartered waters for the country as a whole and many demands on money and time.  

But we can’t afford for it to be the poorest who suffer most.

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