School closures could impact future workforce for generations, study warns

24 Jul 2020 By Maggie Baska

Report estimates a quarter of the labour market will have lower skills beyond 2080 as children lose out on education during lockdown

School time lost because of the coronavirus pandemic could hurt the UK economy for decades, a study has warned, with many young people losing out on critical skills and growth in the future. 

The research said the disruption to lessons will have a negative impact on the future skills of the workforce for the next 50 years, costing billions in a reduced growth rate.

The report, compiled by Delve, a multi-disciplinary group brought together by the Royal Society, has called on the government to prioritise reopening schools and getting students back into education to mitigate the effects on the future workforce. 

It said there is a “huge base of evidence” showing that earnings are linked to education and skills, meaning losing out on school time would have negative economic consequences for future generations. Without action from the government, it estimated that around a quarter of the UK’s workforce will have lower skills well into the 2080s. 

Simon Burgess, professor of economics at the University of Bristol and lead author of the report, said the amount of school already missed because of the pandemic could impact these workers’ earning potential by around 3 per cent per year throughout their lives, and impact on productivity in the UK for decades. 

“We know how damaging it is for children to miss out on school,” Burgess said. “While we have to do all we can to reduce the risk of transmission, we do need to get our children back to school.”

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He added there was little evidence of surges in Covid-19 infection rates in countries that have opened up schools. 

The Royal Society research comes as official data found a majority of adults plan to allow their children to return to school when the new term begins. According to the latest data from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) on the social impacts of Covid-19, nine in 10 (89 per cent) adults said it was either very or fairly likely their children would return to school in September.

However, three in five (62 per cent) reported being very or somewhat worried about their children returning to school. More than half (58 per cent) feared their child catching coronavirus while attending lessons, and 42 per cent of parents were concerned about the impact the changes at school will have on their children’s mental health and wellbeing. 

Two-thirds (65 per cent) of adults with school-age children reported their children had previously been asked to return to school during June and July. Of these, 63 per cent said their children had attended lessons, with a further 19 per cent reporting that some of their children had added and some had not. 

The main reason given for children not returning to school during June and July was because of concerns around children spreading the coronavirus and being infected, with almost half (49 per cent) of respondents citing this. 

The Royal Society study found the reluctance of parents for their children to return to school can damage children’s future earnings. The researchers said the actual loss of learning will vary depending on what schools and families have been able to provide in the way of remote schooling. 

However, Anna Vignoles, professor of education at the University of Cambridge, said it was very likely that these gaps in provision have exacerbated existing inequalities between children from different socioeconomic backgrounds. 

“Shutting down schools has impacted all children but the worst effects will be felt by those from lower socio-economic groups and with other vulnerabilities, such as a pre-existing mental health condition,” Vignoles said. “Children from low-income households in particular are more likely to lack the resources – space, equipment, home support – to engage fully with remote schooling.”

A survey earlier this year by Canada Life found two-fifths (39 per cent) of working adults with school-age children were balancing full-time jobs while also homeschooling during the pandemic. On average these parents spend three hours a day – 15 hours a week – homeschooling, with many making up the lost work hours in the evenings after their children had gone to sleep.

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