Helen Barnard, Director, Joseph Rowntree Foundation

Education and skills can unlock people from poverty: we must rise to the challenge of a new lockdown and build the foundations for a just recovery

The announcement of another lockdown was necessary but is another blow for families, schools, FE and HE providers already reeling from the unrelenting pressures of 2020.

As was the case last year, families on low incomes face fears about their jobs, how to afford the rent and with the added pressures of keeping warm during a Winter lockdown. Those with school age children are worried about how they will access education and how to cope with the digital divide. Those with older children worry about how they will get the qualifications they need to move on to the next phase of education, how they will find work and when it is safe for them to return to university or college.

For low-income families with school age children, two major issues were not addressed quickly or effectively enough during the first lockdown: home learning and free school meals. Despite the chaotic start to this lockdown, we have the chance now to do better, but fast action is required.

The move to home learning is highly likely to widen educational inequality

The move to home learning is highly likely to widen educational inequality. It was clear during the first lockdown that the remote learning offer varied wildly between schools. This was compounded by the lack of access to devices and the internet for children living in poverty. Despite several schemes being in place across the UK, the Children’s Commissioner estimated they targeted only between a third and a half of children without access to appropriate devices. Governments should urgently seek to address this by making cash or vouchers available to schools to purchase devices for the children that need them most. But access to devices is only part of this issue.

Households on low incomes are less likely to have an internet connection in the home. In England, schools can apply for 4G wireless routers for pupils, and the UK Government has worked with mobile phone networks to enable temporary increases to data allowances to households without fixed broadband access. Government should urgently mobilise, in partnership with local authorities and schools, to ensure those that need this support have access to it as quickly as possible.

Other issues are even harder to tackle quickly

Other issues are even harder to tackle quickly, such as a lack of space at home and the extent to which parents have the skills and time to support children to use devices and access learning. The offer of in-school education for vulnerable children or those facing additional difficulties has been there from the start but was not used as widely as might have been expected during the first lockdown. This time around it is vital that this capacity is used where it is most needed, and every effort made to prevent those children falling even further behind.

The provision of free school meals whilst children are not in school was one of the hottest issues of 2020. This time it is welcome that the government has immediately committed to ensuring that children eligible for Free School Meals will still be able to access them whilst out of school. However, the quality of provision in the first lockdown was inconsistent and voucher schemes are inflexible, stigmatising and not always easily accessible by families. The UK government should convert Free School Meal provision for pupils learning from home in England into cash payments as has happened in Northern Ireland, most of Wales and some parts of Scotland.

Finally, the immediate focus on how to keep children and young people safe and learning through this new lockdown must not obscure the urgent need to help adults who are losing work to improve their skills to find new and good quality jobs. Last November, the government’s Spending Review was a missed opportunity to take bold action to deliver this. The Chancellor did not do enough to help the people who lose their jobs improve their skills to find work. The £375 million adult skills announcement fell far short of the £600 million a year National Skills Fund the Government promised at the 2019 general election. The Government’s new £2.9 billion Restart employment support programme is a significant and welcome intervention at scale, and recognises the scale of the economic and employment challenge facing the UK in the months ahead. But committing just £400 million to the programme in 2021 risks underinvesting in the early stages.

In March 2020, we were uncertain how long the pandemic would be with us. Now, with vaccines being rolled out the end is hopefully in sight. It is only right that governments should do all they can to support people through this next period to protect jobs, incomes and the health of our communities and to prevent young people’s futures being scarred. As well as coping with the immediate pressures, we must also put in place the foundations to rebuild a just and inclusive post-pandemic economy.

Helen Barnard, Director, Joseph Rowntree Foundation

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