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女大学生的沙龙: A Tory spending splurge can't make up for the damage to our children's education

Boris Johnson’s wheeze to fix the corona-hobbled economy with a massive school building programme has the codename “Project Speed”. It may as well be “Project Spend” - or even “Project Splurge.”

A decade after Labour’s Building Schools for the Future programme was scrapped by George Osborne in the name of austerity, the Prime Minister is promising a chunky ?1bn for school infrastructure with a further ?560m for repairs over 10 years.

Promoting his “Rooseveltian” plan to lift Britain from the jaws of recession with a Depression-style New Deal, Mr Johnson declared himself a spender, not a saver. Austerity is dead; let the cash flow. Somewhat churlishly, the unions have met this largess with a wrinkled nose, insisting more is needed to improve the classrooms many teachers seem reluctant to return to.

The Association of School and College Leaders highlighted a National Audit Office report from a few years ago, which suggested ?13.8bn was necessary to bring buildings up to scratch. It is unlikely Kate Green, Labour’s new shadow education secretary, will miss the opportunity to engage in a bidding war with the Government over this one. Yet this largesse comes at a time when ?22bn has been spent paying the wages of 9 million workers under the furlough scheme, when tax receipts fell by ?26bn in April alone, and public services from social care to the NHS are in crisis.

Mr Johnson has always been swayed by the allure of a big infrastructure project; remember his garden bridge across the Thames? Boris Island airport in the Thames Estuary? The Bridge to Terabithia, sorry, Larne in Northern Ireland?? So it is perhaps no surprise that when confronted with what he describes as the “disaster” that is coronavirus, he thinks first of a cement mixer rather than, say, extending free school meals through the summer.

With public health having by necessity dominated the minds of ministers over the last few months, it is right that attention is finally now turning to the hideous impact of the virus on schools and children.?The American Association of Pediatrics this week advised that, given children and adolescents are “less likely to be symptomatic and less likely to have severe disease,” and “may be less likely to become infected and to spread infection,” the harm to their academic, social and mental wellbeing from being out of school far outweighed the perceived health benefits. In an open letter signed by 100 leading professionals, British child psychologists warned recently of “lifelong” consequences for children kept out of school.

A 2007 US study of the impact of closing schools due to bad weather found that for every day lost there was a 0.5 per cent fall in the level of pupils reaching required grades in reading and math. Closing schools for five days resulted in a fall in attainment of 3pc. UK schools have now been shut to most pupils for 95 days and counting. The vast majority will be out of class for approaching six months by the time they return after the summer.?

The ?1bn?“catch-up fund” announced earlier this month to help pupils who have fallen behind will do more to mitigate some of the worst effects of the lockdown than any amount spent on new buildings.

Yet in many schools, less than half of eligible children are back in class, held back by fearful parents whose anxiety has been stoked by teachers unwilling to show the same dedication to their vocation as heroic doctors, nurses and carers have displayed through this pandemic. Prospects for the full reopening schools in September, even with the revised one-metre rule, will be jeopardised if the Government cannot stamp out the virus; reports of a rising R-rate of transmission and local flair-ups such as that which has taken hold in Leicester make a second wave in the Autumn an all-too real prospect.

The UK is still grappling with the challenges and consequences of the first stage of this novel coronavirus. In better days it would be marvellous for children to enjoy eating lunch in a shiny new canteen or to kick a ball around a state-of-the-art gym. But right now, and more than anything, they need to be back in a classroom, receiving in-person tuition from an inspiring teacher, in the company of their peers.? To do that, the Government needs to focus its attention – and cash – on tackling the virus - and on winning back public trust so parents believe ministers’ claims to be doing so.

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