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Locked down and out: education and marginalisation in Covid times

23 January 2021

A significant part of my own professional educational career was largely in the tertiary sector - what most people understand as further and adult education. Over a period of 15 years, I was Principal of two FE Colleges, in Milton Keynes and Cambridge – both of which ran (and still run) significant programmes of technical and vocational skills training for young people over the age of 16 and for adults – many of whom find themselves ‘returning’ to college for a ‘second chance’.

Although I am no longer employed full-time in this sector, I retain many strong links with it and with students, teachers, and leaders engaged on the front line in everyday teaching and assessment. This is largely through the charity I founded and fund, the Helena Kennedy Foundation, and through my role as Vice Chair of the City & Guilds. Additionally, as Chair of The Scouts, the largest mixed youth engagement charity in the country, I have significant contact with young people between the ages of 6 and 25, and their parents and volunteer leaders, from a wide range of backgrounds – many in the 200 most disadvantaged and deprived areas of the UK.

This knowledge and experience have naturally informed the thinking presented in my paper - and as you will see if you have had a chance to read it - the main focus of my observations about the financial and social effects of marginalisation centre around those in further education, employment and training – or perhaps most accurately (to use a term you may be familiar with) those not in education employment or training – NEETs.

Between 1999 and 2005, in the early days of the Blair government, I went to work for the Department for Education in a role that, for what was technically a senior civil service post, curiously and erroneously entitled Chief Executive of the University for Industry. I won’t dwell now on this fact or the origins of that quasi quango, but for anyone seeking enlightenment, I direct you to the 1997 ‘new Labour’ manifesto - and all will be revealed. The significance and relevance of this experience lies in the focus my paper also gives to digital poverty, In the introduction of UK online, learndirect and gov.uk back at the turn of the millennium (and my role was to oversee the implementation of all those major IT programmes in schools, colleges, libraries, workplaces, community centres etc), the government of the day certainly had a clear vision of the digital future that has become today’s reality but it did not foresee or take action to prevent the very real and growing ‘digital divide’ which has developed over the last 20 years and has been thrown into relief by the pandemic.

Finally, an introductory note about the evolution of the paper. I began to worry about these issues when we went into the first lockdown. It was obvious to me that, by and large those of us who were OK, would probably be OK – provided we were sensible and cautious. Even before any of the evidence which 10 months later has now accrued (and I will refer to some of this shortly), the experiences I had in my educational career, suggested to me that those who were not OK – would not be OK, that life for many already disadvantaged would get poorer, harder, bleaker and more desperate. ‘If at first you don’t succeed, you don’t succeed’ Helena Kennedy said in her seminal report of 1997, ‘Learning Works’ which inspired me to set up the charity that bears her name and to which I have already referred this evening. In the words of one of the many recent headlines on this topic coined as mounting evidence of the plight of some disadvantaged communities has been more widely reported in the media, for so many LOCKED DOWN really means LOCKED OUT – from all that you and I have access to.

The position of people on the margins of society pre-Covid has been amplified rather than ameliorated as a result of the pandemic; the lives of such people disproportionately affected and perniciously impacted by this disease. Many factors conspire to create this situation and my paper shines a light on just three of the main barriers financial disadvantage, digital exclusion, and social deprivation

Each factor on its own leads to marginalisation. Taken together, and at a time of a recession which is the steepest in our country in 300 years and is worse here than any other nation in the G7, the result is a significant increase in marginalisation of certain sections of society, especially those from socio economic groups C2DE, from a Black Asian & Minority Ethnic backgrounds, and from economically and geographically challenged communities.

We are living in a country where existing deep chasms of inequity have been further rent asunder by Covid. By highlighting financial disadvantage, digital exclusion and social deprivation, I propose actions, specifically but not exclusively, for government, for global tech corporations, and for universities. However, in reality, it will take energy and resources from us all to shift the dial of transformation that is now needed to help re-balance the educational, emotional, and social fabric of society.

Skills and employment opportunities are vanishing on a massive scale before our eyes. Youth unemployment is already significant and growing. There is predicted widespread graduate unemployment and underemployment. It is estimated that a minimum of 1million adults over 50 will lose their jobs, and job losses for people of all ages has rocketed. At the same time, work patterns are changing, and new job opportunities have emerged through the pandemic - in certain parts of the country and in specific skills sectors like logistics, health care, green technology and advanced manufacturing.

Skilling the nation has never been more important and could be the country’s best economic and equality policy. At one and the same time, the country could tackle the issue of financial hardship experienced by the poorest in society and ‘skill up’ the nation to steer us out of recession and into a successful post Brexit trading world.

Conservative governments have historically taken bold steps to tackle skills issues in this country, making radical reforms to Further Education in the early 1990s and introducing an apprenticeship levy in 2015. Now is the time to make the boldest governmental move ever and learning from successful practice in other countries, such as the skills credit system that operates in Singapore, the government, employers and skills providers should work together to devise a UK based system of universal entitlement to training based on the principle of equal access to skills training.

Lockdown and social isolation threw the digital switch overnight. In the UK, there are 1.9 million households, including 700,000 children, who do not have access to the internet. Poorer families are twice as likely to have no computer access, no broadband or affordable mobile data at home and no quiet place to study. Covid has made this a public emergency as many vulnerable people have been cut off from, locked out of, the outside world. We must immediately address the issue of the digitally ‘left behind’. The government recognises this, but lap top roll to schools has been slow, disjointed and uneven. The private sector acknowledges its role too and where possible has given access to fast broadband and waivered charges for mobile data. This is nothing like enough. A massive collective push and much more resource is needed.

I propose the introduction of a digital premium funded through charitable donations and the CSR budgets of successful technology and pharma companies. Something along the lines of the ‘pupil premium’, administered through schools, colleges and unions, and workplaces and for poorer households through the welfare benefit system. A digital premium fund could be financed through one off charitable donations from individual tech entrepreneurs and philanthropists and from designated Covid emergency funds created from the charitable foundations of the giant tech and pharma companies who have profited so much from the pandemic.

‘Social mobility is the real causality of Covid’, the hugely respected Conservative MP Robert Halfon, Chairman of the Education Select Committee has said. Our education service is in a state of turmoil. After a series of stop start openings and closures, schools, colleges and universities have had to move teaching online (with variable degrees of quality and success), the examination system as we know it is shot to pieces, and unions and the government lurch from one loggerhead to another. Student debt continues to mount affecting the poorest families and students from disadvantaged backgrounds the most. The gap between disadvantaged pupils and their peers has increased by half and social mobility gains made over the last decade are being wiped out before our eyes - not just knocked back knocked over….

‘You cannot furlough young people’s learning’, the Children’s Commissioner for England Anne Longfield has warned, calling for an urgent overhaul of the help given to disadvantaged children in order to prevent a ‘devastating impact for a generation’. There is a danger, she says, that in five years’ time, we look back at this generation and we see children who have fallen from view during Covid. Already a fifth of all children leave school without basic qualifications. We now have a cohort of children who have not only lost hours of learning during lockdown (one day of national school closure works out at about 40,000 child years of education in total) but we have children who have also experienced extensive trauma. These are largely the children living in impoverished households who are twice as likely to experience mental health disorders, abuse and hunger. The Royal College of Psychiatrists confirms that the mental health toll is not evenly distributed across the country and that poorer communities are disproportionately affected e.g. the proportion of children aged 5-16 experiencing mental disorder rose from 1 in 9 (2017) to 1 in 6 in October 2020. To quote Robert Halfon again, ‘there is no vaccine against the wrecked life chances of a generation, ‘social mobility is the real causality of Covid’.

It is becoming clear that the issue of social disadvantage, which has got much worse over the last 10 months, is now a major cross party concern; there are calls from significant coalitions of people for the government to set up a Commission to investigate this fully. I think this is right. When I wrote my paper, I looked at social mobility through the lens of university admissions as I believe this is one lever for chance that could be pulled relatively quickly. The Secretary of State for Education proposed this very reform last November and I urge all VCs to make it happen as soon as possible. It is at least 20 years overdue and my paper draws attention to numerous previous thwarted attempts to create a post-qualification admissions system. A system in which applicants apply with grades in hand must surely be a sensible and equitable policy priority. The current turbulence uniquely presents the opportunity for government and universities to devise a post qualification admissions system that simultaneously responds to the disrupted timetables caused by Covid and tackles head on issues of unconscious bias, discrimination, inequality and social mobility in the current admissions system.

In conclusion, it goes without saying that this period, globally, will be referred to for the rest of our lifetimes and beyond. We are at the confluence of three highly specific points of change (Covid, Black Lives Matter (and in UK Brexit,) underpinned by two significant global transformational trends - a greater awareness of the climate crisis and rapid digitisation through the 4th Industrial Revolution of AI and machine learning. Together, these create a set of alchemical conditions which provide a potent crucible for cultural change, giving us the opportunity to think strategically, work collaboratively, and live adventurously. This time is one the social commentator and priest Richard Rohr has referred to as ‘a highly teachable moment’.

If we are to tackle the issues of the marginalised in education, skills and employment we need a new ‘skills policy that will deliver in a radically different economic and social environment2. The ideas presented here more exploration and engagement with those involved and affected. We must take this opportunity to think big and act boldly, join the dots, and change the narrative on skills.

As humans it is natural to respond to disruption and threat by channelling our energy into either a defensive or a proactive position. I urge us to break free from this habitual dualistic pattern of thinking and acting. Pitching one against the other can lead to, and perpetuate, and legitimise, what Theresa May termed the ‘coarsening’ of public debate.

We need to behave differently now deploying a discourse that will turn the tide of ugly rhetoric and offensive commentary. We can do so by using the urgency of innovation, and the energy of disruption to seek collaborative, creative, and compassionate solutions to contemporary issues as we have shown we can do throughout the Covid crisis.

This now is the opportunity before our politicians and leaders, our opinion formers and policy-makers, our institutions and families – each and every citizen - and if not now, when?