Coronavirus pandemic could create 'educational underclass' in London, Teach First co-founder warns

·4-min read

The coronavirus pandemic risks undoing years of work spent improving education for poorer children in London and could create an “educational underclass”, the founder of Teach First has warned.

Brett Wigdortz set up the revolutionary teaching scheme to improve the life chances of the capital’s most disadvantaged children in 2002.

But he warned of an impending national crisis as London risks “backsliding” on all the good work that has been done to narrow the gap between rich and poor children’s educational achievements.

Mr Wigdortz said: “I think it is a national crisis which people don’t talk about. Because if you are saying not all children get access to the same quality education and instead we are developing an educational underclass, I think that’s something people should really worry about.”

It comes after a report showed that for the first time since 2007 the learning gap between rich and poor primary age pupils in England has widened.

Brett Wigdortz (Nigel Howard)
Brett Wigdortz (Nigel Howard)

The figures, from 2019, show the gap began to widen even before the pandemic hit. But it is now expected to get even worse as a result of the lockdown, which saw many deprived children struggling to keep up with schoolwork. Many had no access to computers, the internet, a quiet space to work or tutors, unlike their wealthier peers.

Mr Wigdortz said: “London has done so well over the last 20 years. I travel around the world and people look at London as one of the biggest success stories globally in educational improvements. It’s a big city and it really has some wonderful schools for low income kids and has made huge improvements, but especially for London I do worry about backsliding.”

Mr Wigdortz left as CEO of Teach First three years ago. He set up the charity to encourage top graduates to work in poor schools, and it became one of the biggest graduate recruiters in the country.

“I think the education gap is such a huge crisis that doesn’t get enough attention...and you can just see it starting to slide back."

Brett Wigdortz

It was one of a number of initiatives to improve education in London. Results in London schools have improved dramatically since 2003 when the London Challenge was launched. Since then results in London regularly outstrip those in other parts of England, and the gap between rich and poor pupils has narrowed.

Mr Wigdortz said he is “hugely worried” that all the good work could be undone by the pandemic.

He said: “I think the education gap is such a huge crisis that doesn’t get enough attention, and it started to slightly get better over the last decade and you can just see it starting to slide back.

“If that happens you have a permanent underclass of people who just don’t have the opportunities that they deserve.”

The government has announced that GCSE and A-Level exams will be moved back by three weeks to allow more time for children to catch up on work missed during the pandemic. Mr Wigdortz said that is not enough time, and keeping schools open during future outbreaks should be a “big priority.”

He said: “There really needs to be a focus on children who didn’t have good home schooling or broadband.

“So many children we worked with shared a bedroom with siblings and didn’t have any place to do homework at home.

“The idea they were getting a lot of work done during lockdown and were able to learn a lot is very low.

“I haven’t seen the government come up with anything to really help those children.

“Many children who come from families who have great broadband, good computers at home and tutors and all that stuff will probably be OK with the last year.”

A spokeswoman for the Department for Education said: “We have been clear no child should fall behind as a result of coronavirus. We are investing an additional £1 billion through our Covid catch up fund to deliver tutoring targeted at the most disadvantaged, as well as flexible funding for schools to use to help all their pupils make up for lost education.

“This comes on top of the core funding schools are receiving, which is seeing the largest increase in a decade beginning this year, and pupil premium funding worth £2.4 billion this year to support the most disadvantaged pupils.”

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