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Slow Views

The Treasury is failing schoolchildren

Tuesday 8 June 2021

By going along with his chancellor, Boris Johnson is failing them too. He has one more chance to put that right


In February, Boris Johnson insisted that recovering learning lost during Covid’s school closures was a “national priority,” and promised “no child will be left behind”. He appointed Sir Kevan Collins, a highly respected former council leader, to propose a plan. It was made clear that substantial resources would be made available, given evidence suggests an average three to five months of learning loss; with lower-income pupils and those in northern “red wall” parts of England most seriously affected.

Last week, then, the government announced a “plan” with one element – 15 hours of tuition for more disadvantaged pupils costing around £1 billion – to widespread disdain from across the education sector. Sir Kevan resigned, saying that this “falls far short of what is needed”.

How did it all go wrong? A few weeks ago a substantial package, worth over £10 billion was put to the Treasury. This included tutoring and teacher training, but the centrepiece was a proposal to extend the school day by half an hour for three years, giving every child an additional 100 hours of schooling. Following careful negotiation with the unions this was to be done by paying extra to those teachers who volunteered for longer hours and bringing in non-teaching staff, such as professional tutors. It was by far the most costly element of the plan.

The Treasury vetoed the plan flat out. They argued that the evidence base wasn’t there for a longer school day; that it wasn’t supported by parents or the profession; and there simply wasn’t any money to pay for it. The first argument is dubious: there isn’t slam dunk evidence for extending the day, as there is for tutoring, but what we have supports Sir Kevan’s analysis. The second argument is plain wrong: polling commissioned by the Centre for Policy Studies shows that parents do support the plan, and the unions were on board given that no teacher would have to do work that was unpaid or mandatory. As for the cost, it’s hard to see how any but the most myopic economist could think that investing in education recovery isn’t in our financial interests. As is so often the case the Treasury seem to think their job is stopping others spending money rather than growing the economy.

Unfortunately, the prime minister refused to back the plan, despite promising full support, and fell in behind Rishi Sunak, the chancellor. The Department for Education was left announcing a plan that they didn’t support. This is in sharp contrast to other countries, like the US and Netherlands, which have made significant investment in education a major component of their Covid recovery plans. The Netherlands will spend £2,500 per pupil. Here, the average primary school will only get £6,000 in total – and some of this will be used to cover cuts elsewhere in budgets. It is self-evident that this level of investment won’t touch the sides, given the scale of the challenge.

Indeed, most people working in schools considered Sir Kevan’s plan somewhat underpowered even before it was scuppered. In particular, it did not have a package of support for the most vulnerable young people – those who need social services, mental health support, or who are at risk of dropping out of the system altogether. These services were all under severe stress before the pandemic due to year-on-year cuts to local authority budgets and the fragmentation of children’s services. In parts of the country, a third of referrals to the Child and Adolescent Mental Health Service (CAMHS) were rejected in 2019 and the average wait time was six months. The widespread view amongst headteachers is that things are now a lot worse.

As for dropouts, we don’t even know the scale of the problem due to a lack of data on those not attending school, and with local authorities rarely having the resources to follow up properly when cases are identified. In other countries, this has been a major focus of Covid recovery. In the UK, it’s barely been acknowledged. We do know that the number of children living in poverty is now increasing; largely due to benefits freezes and the two-child benefit cap. Funding breakfast clubs and free lunches during holidays would go some way to mitigating this.

From talking to schools, I suspect a package that included serious investment in CAMHS, support for those at risk of dropout, and ensuring young people had enough food would be a higher priority than tutoring and a longer day.

Moreover, the Collins plan was purely focused on academic catch-up. No doubt this is critical – young people’s life chances are closely tied to passing exams – but it ignores the cultural impact of the pandemic. Regardless of background, all children have lost the opportunity to expand their horizons beyond home or school. The French government has decided to give all 18-year-olds a “culture pass,” worth about £400, which allows them to buy tickets to museums, galleries and theatre. It also allows them to buy places on art and music courses or purchase books and equipment for use at home. A similar pass made available to all secondary age pupils would not only pay kids back for the misery of the past 15 months, but would also help cultural industries back to their feet in a way that was more socially beneficial than straightforward subsidies.

A plan that included a substantial three-year package of support for the most vulnerable; the tuition and academic catch-up envisioned by Sir Kevan; and a culture pass – all that would have cost around £20 billion. This would have been equivalent to recovery spending in the Netherlands and the US. And it is a fraction of the £400 billion the government has so far spent on managing Covid. Education is the worst possible area to scrimp on.

There is another chance, in the Autumn Spending Review, for Boris Johnson to stand up to the Treasury and show he is not going to be another Tory PM defined by austerity. If he doesn’t take it, there won’t be another opportunity – either for him or for the nation’s children.

Sam Freedman is a former senior adviser to the Department of Education and executive director at Teach First


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