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Boris Johnson at Castle Rock high school

Boris Johnson at Castle Rock high school, Photo: Andrew Parsons / No 10 Downing Street Flickr / cropped from original / licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0, linked at bottom of article

The government is using fake concern about lockdown learning as a smokescreen to justify another risky reopening of schools, argues Sean Ledwith

Addressing the Education Select Committee earlier this week, Schools Minister Nick Gibb managed to come up with some proposals guaranteed to demotivate the country’s already harassed children and educators even further. As if sending them in for one day and then closing schools at the start of this term was not hare-brained enough, Gibb now suggests extending the school day and shortening the summer holiday as solutions to the impact of Covid on the education system.

Like many other Tory MPs at the moment, the minister is proclaiming a supposed concern about the ongoing impact of lockdown on the academic development and mental health of children in the UK:

“We just have to leave no stone unturned in making sure that we can help those young people catch up from the lost education.”

Last week, Gibbs’ boss in Number 10 also tried to persuade us this issue is now his top priority. Johnson stated:

I am absolutely determined that no child will be left behind as a result of the pandemic. Our top priority is to get schools open again and once they are, we will make sure that teachers and students are equipped with the resources and the time they need to make up for lost learning.

 A few facts about child poverty in the UK should expose the hollowness of Johnson’s bluster about “no child left behind”:

1 4.2 million children are currently living in poverty

2350 000 children are in a household where one person has to skip a meal

3 1 in 3 children will be living in poverty if current trends continue

4 There has been a 107% increase in food parcels delivered to children

5 There is still no decision on whether to continue the £20 a week uplift in Universal Credit beyond March. One estimate suggests failure to do so would plunge an additional 200 000 children into poverty

6 1.3 million under-fives are living in poverty

7 Half the children of that age in the capital city are in poverty

8 Primary school pupils in poverty are nine months behind their peers in terms of attainment (before the pandemic)

9 By GCSE level this gap increases to eighteen months

10 The gap between rich and poor pupils has gone into reverse for the first time in twelve years (before the pandemic)

Gibb, Johnson and the rest of the Tory party seriously expect us to forget they have championed policies of austerity over the last ten years that have created these and many other inequalities. In addition, they have fostered a high-stakes testing culture in our primary schools that many educators regard as a major factor in the explosion of reported mental health problems among young people.

Thatcherite fanatics

This newly discovered Tory passion for state education comes as part of a propaganda offensive to justify the potential reopening of schools from March 8th. Although this plan is still unconfirmed, Johnson is coming under pressure from the hard right, anti-lockdown wing of his party to pursue this target date regardless of scientific and educational counter-arguments. Mark Harper from the so-called Covid Recovery Group is even urging the PM to bring the reopening forward to straight after the upcoming half-term.

Harper and other swivel-eyed Tory backbenchers are directly responsible for the post-Christmas resurgence of the virus as they pressured him to loosen the restrictions at the end of 2020. This allowed the Kent variant to circulate freely and reboot infections. These Thatcherite fanatics at all levels of the Tory party have crippled the UK response to the virus from day one with their ideological refusal to see that in this type of crisis public health has to be prioritised over the pursuit of profit. The disastrous consequences of their unhinged agenda lends a grim irony to the name of Harper’s faction.

Sociopaths

Professor Devi Sridhar from Edinburgh University is one of the medical voices cautioning against this right-wing charge to get classrooms fully open before the virus is under control:  

“The issue with schools is not opening them, it’s keeping them open. If you keep having cases, you will be having bubbles of 50 kids going home repeatedly, and that’s not sustainable education. You are better off keeping them closed longer to get your numbers down and then opening in a more sustainable way.”

If the sociopaths of the CRG get their way, it is not inconceivable we will see a repetition of events last autumn when the government’s headlong rush to reopen schools and universities in defiance of scientific advice rebooted the virus after a summer lull. Parents and teaching unions may soon have to gear up for another battle to prevent this appalling government jumping right back into the hole we are only just climbing out of.

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Sean Ledwith

Sean Ledwith

Sean Ledwith is a Counterfire member and Lecturer in History at York College, where he is also UCU branch secretary. Sean is also a regular contributor to Marx and Philosophy Review of Books and Culture Matters

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