During the weekend, amid all the snipers and political clashes between teacher unions and the government about how and when to open schools, a shamefully neglected subject emerged.
It was nothing short of the future of the children of this country – something I have to say, unfortunately, is now hanging by a thread.
The reality is that if our schools are not reopened quickly, the inequality gap that affects the British education system will become a chasm. The damage done will be literally irreparable for a generation of children.
We already know from a number of studies that the children of wealthy parents without formal education do much better than those who were born disadvantaged or poor.
The reality is that if our schools are not reopened quickly, the inequality gap that affects the British education system will become a chasm. The damage done is literally irreparable for a generation of children (file image)
Today's shocking study by the Institute for Fiscal Studies, which found that children from wealthy families completed one and a half weeks more study hours than poorer children by June 1, is only the latest in a series of deeply worrying reports.
A survey of school principals and governors at primary and secondary schools over the weekend even warned that 700,000 state students would not be given blackout classes.
I shudder to think how far back these children will be when, as it now seems likely, they won't be back in class until September.
Finally, aptitude tests for children on their return from long summer vacations have repeatedly shown that poorer children from less regulated, less educated households often need special coaching to get back to pre-holiday levels.
It is a really desperate situation, which is all the more humiliating as we are now lagging behind Western Europe to reopen our schools.
The Danish primary schools have been open for a month and the infection rate continues to drop.
Children returned to Germany, Holland and France last week.
And yet, for some bizarre reason, Britain isn't even considering partially reopening it until early June – and even then only for a few primary year groups.
Children returned to Germany, Holland and France last week. A preschool is pictured in Berlin this week
Of course, I accept that there are great challenges in getting children back to class. It is true that the government is demonstrating that it is committed to reducing the risk to children and teachers, and it is reasonable for teaching unions to be involved in this process.
However, this is not an excuse for the National Educational Union to withdraw all cooperation in this process and to draw up a false list of inappropriate and vague demands – for example, that schools will only be opened if "there is confidence that new cases are known and counted immediately will".
Such inaccurate ultimatums indicate a highly political attempt by a traditionally militant leftist union to create obstacles to thwart the ambitions of a conservative government.
In fact, I suspect that many who claim to be afraid of returning to school are deliberately missing the point.
First, there is no firm scientific consensus as to when a return would be absolutely safe, and you cannot hide from the virus indefinitely. Second, the pandemic has so far shown that children are the least likely to catch or transmit Covid-19.
But even if there is a risk, it does not justify the debilitating effects of keeping children locked up at home.
Because the terrible consequences of dropping out of school for six months are not only pedagogical, but also medical and psychological. It is hated to think how many children currently live in homes where abuse and domestic violence are prevalent and without the opportunity to speak to adults outside the home.
It is also alarming to see big differences in the way different schools have adapted to online teaching methods.
Most private schools and the more powerful state schools appear to do well overall. But schools in disadvantaged areas are fighting desperately.
I do not apologize for expressing myself strongly in relation to education equality. I want everyone to have the opportunities I had. I grew up in the East End of London, the son of a Billingsgate doorman and a factory worker, both of whom left school at 14.
I was lucky enough to have good, caring teachers and parents who are committed to getting the best out of me. Thanks to the excellent start, I was able to fulfill my ambitions. Ultimately, this is the main goal of a well-run school: it is a great social leveler, a fair environment in which every student has the opportunity to fully develop their talents.
So we have to let our kids back into the classroom to learn, play, and thrive. For them and for the future of our country.
Professor Smithers is director of the Center for Education and Employment Research at the University of Buckingham.
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