Children will pay the cost of lockdown for the rest of their lives in lower earnings because the impact on their education of missed lessons in the spring will hold them back permanently, analysts have warned.
The average pupil can expect to earn £750 a year less than they would if their classes had not been disrupted, according to the National Institute of Economic and Social Research.
In current cash terms, that will amount to a loss of £14,000 over their lives.
The impact was worst for children in disadvantaged households, who typically lost between three and four hours of education a week, said Adrian Pabst at the Institute, arguing that schools must stay open through this new lockdown.
“Once this disruption has happened, you may see a slow learning pace going forward, an erosion of academic skills and a difficulty in reengaging in educational activities once schools reopen,” he said.
“That would have a significant long-term effect even after schools reopened again following the end of the lockdown period.”
On top of that parents often became less productive, as they had to spend more time on childcare and education and less on working, affecting the wider economy and household incomes.
“The effect of lockdown has clearly particularly hit the poorest and most disadvantaged in our society. We can now assess impact not only in terms of GDP but also in levels of destitution and demand for food banks, homelessness and other effects,” said Mr Pabst.
“Under lockdown we find that school children especially from disadvantaged backgrounds lose hours of schooling, and parents sometimes withdraw to some extent from the labour force, and that then affects their productivity now but also their children’s lifetime earnings.”
He noted warnings from some unions that schools should be closed to protect teachers from Covid, but said there were other, less harmful ways to control the virus.
“Rather than closing schools down, we say on balance it is better to keep them open, because infection rates are better controlled by effective testing, tracing and tracking system at the local level.”
The National Association of Head Teachers said it was crucial to keep schools open so pupils can catch up on lost education.
“The government is quite correct to put a high priority on preserving young peoples’ education. We want schools to be open. But, just proclaiming that schools and colleges can and should stay open this time will not make it so. That responsibility rests on the shoulders of school leader,” Paul Whiteman, general secretary of NAHT.
“The government has to be more open about the conflict between the need to keep face to face learning going and the need to keep staff and pupils safe. Staff safety is a hugely important issue. Not because their safety is any more important than anyone else’s but because if staff are ill, they cannot come to work, they cannot stand in front of a class, and pupils will still miss out.”
Julian Jessop, an independent economist and fellow at the Institute of Economic Affairs, said schools were “probably the last thing you would want to close”, particularly to close inequalities between households of different incomes and wealth levels.
“In the short-term, there is overwhelming evidence people in disadvantaged households are less likely to be able to benefit from homeschooling - they are less likely to have computers or go to private schools which can provide good online teaching,” he said.
Children from middle class families had a better chance to get ahead regardless, but a good start in school was particularly crucial for poorer pupils, Mr Jessop argued.
He suggested vulnerable teachers be allowed to shield, either staying at home or offering online classes, while others stay at work to keep schools open to avoid losing any more education.
“The longer it goes on, the bigger the cumulative effect becomes. And it is not just the formal education which children miss out on - it is also the social side, as well as the safeguarding issue as teachers keep an eye on children,” said Mr Jessop.
“Whichever way you look at it, it is absolutely right to prioritise keeping children at schools.”
A Department for Education spokesman said: "Closing schools poses a risk to pupils’ education and wellbeing – particularly for disadvantaged pupils. This report illustrates that and backs up our determination to keep nurseries, schools, colleges and universities open.
“Schools and teachers are going to great lengths to support their students, putting remote education in place should any need to self-isolate, and using their funding and access to tutoring through our £1bn Covid catch up package to tackle the impact of lost teaching time.”