More than a million children have been missing school in recent weeks – numbers unprecedented in peacetime.
This risks permanently damaging children’s education and development.
Differences in attendance also risk creating a terrible new North-South divide, with entire communities of children simply being left behind.
Exams regulator Ofqual has warned that the gap in learning loss across different regions is “one of the most intractable issues” and “fraught with difficulty”. It’s a huge challenge.
Pupils in some of the worst-affected areas in the North, like Greater Manchester, have lost out on significant amounts of schooling compared with places in the south – like Cornwall – that have had far fewer Covid cases.
The problem is that the Government doesn’t even seem to appreciate the scale of this challenge.
It hasn’t even been publishing the data showing the levels of absence in different parts of the country.
Labour has been pressing the Government for a plan for exams to go ahead in a way that is fair to all pupils. Teachers, parents and pupils have been crying out for some certainty about what to expect.
So it was a massive disappointment to all of us that the Government’s big idea to address this unfairness was to set up a working group to look into it.
Yes, you read that right. A working group.
It is unbelievable that on something as important as this they’ve only just started to look at what they might do to make sure that kids who have missed the most school because of coronavirus don’t suffer as a result.
The Government has said that it will keep grade boundaries as generous as they were last summer, publish the topics that will be tested in advance, and consider allowing some pre-printed material and revision aids to be provided for some exams.
This is all fine, but it doesn’t address the fundamental unfairness that will see kids who missed the most school this year judged on the same basis as those who experienced the least disruption.
We should be tackling that North-South divide, not adding to it.
Let’s be honest, it will be working-class kids who suffer most.
They tend to live in the communities worst hit by Covid and they’re the ones who have had the most difficulty learning from home, often lacking the laptops and the internet access they need to connect to their lessons.
As someone who grew up on a council estate and benefited from free school meals, I know better than most what a difference a good state education can make to life chances.
I wouldn’t be where I am today without it. It breaks my heart seeing working-class kids failed like this.
But then we shouldn’t expect anything less from this Government.
We saw what a car crash last summer’s exam results were thanks to the Government’s incompetence.
We can’t afford a repeat next year. Pupils, parents and school staff and leaders deserve better.
I want to say a huge thank you to all of you for the way you’ve coped this year.
With our Shadow Education Secretary Kate Green, I’ll keep on fighting your corner as Labour’s Shadow Schools Minister.
Wes Streeting MP
Written for Sunday People.