The terrible cost of shutting schools is becoming clear

A stressed student learning from home
A stressed student learning from home

The slump in the performance of UK schools measured by international academic tables is a shocking indictment of the way education was sacrificed during the Covid pandemic. The OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) has registered a sharp decline in this country, wiping out years of gradual improvement.

The Pisa tests compare educational attainment among 15-year-olds around the world and show UK schoolchildren achieved their lowest scores in mathematics and science since 2006 – the first year of comparable data. Reading results were also down, close to the previous minimum in 2009.

However, as some other participating countries had even greater declines, the UK slightly improved its ranking in the global league tables for maths and reading, despite reduced scores. The decline was especially marked in Wales and Scotland, with England faring better.

The figures were published on the eve of the appearance of Boris Johnson at the Covid Inquiry, where he is set to face questions over delays in locking down the country at the start of the pandemic.

The former prime minister is expected to defend his approach, which, despite criticism of his tardiness, still resulted in three full-scale lockdowns and sundry other restrictions. It is now clear that there were serious costs associated with the policy.

One concerns the increase in illnesses, notably cancers, that might have been diagnosed earlier were people not put off going to see a doctor. Another involves the impact on the education of the Covid cohort and the mental health of millions of children.

Schools were closed for longer in this country than in many others, with teaching unions, egged on by the Labour Party, insistent that children spread the virus even if they were largely unaffected by it.

Remote learning, meanwhile, was too often unstructured and encouraged truancy. At one point 25 per cent of pupils were absent during the pandemic. Even now, absenteeism is close to 10 per cent, a figure unheard of in the past.

Anne Longfield, the former children’s commissioner, told the Covid Inquiry that closing schools had been “a terrible mistake”. The Pisa tests show how right she was. This is the real legacy of Covid lockdowns.

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