Boris Johnson’s government announced its plans to help school children catch up on what they’ve missed because of Covid. It went straight to the back of the class.
Nimo Omer: Hi, I’m Nimo – and this is Sensemaker.
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Today, a row then a resignation: how the government’s plans to help school kids catch up after Covid fell apart.
“The government’s education Covid recovery programme is in turmoil tonight following the shock offer to resign by Sir Kevan Collins.”News report
On Wednesday Kevan Collins, a former teacher who’s worked in public service for over three decades, quit as the education recovery commissioner for England.
And he had some parting words for Boris Johnson.
“In a letter to the prime minister, he said: ‘I do not believe it is credible that a successful recovery can be achieved with a programme of support of this size. I believe that the settlement provided will define the international standard of England’s education system for years to come.’”News report
Kevan Collins had proposed a £15 billion recovery plan to help kids catch up on all the learning they’d missed because of Covid.
The education secretary Gavin Williamson gave the plan to the Treasury, and the Treasury took off a zero.
That meant that on Wednesday morning the Department for Education came up with just under £1.5 billion.
That’s about £50 in extra cash per pupil per year.
So why did an obvious political win… more money for school kids… proposed by a widely respected adviser… end up on the cutting room floor?
“Hi, I’m Kevan Collins, the education recovery commissioner. I’ve been appointed by the prime minister to work with his office and with the department of education and the secretary of state, to give advice and guidance on how we can support children and support schools.”Kevan Collins YouTube video
In the world of education, Kevan Collins is a big name.
He started out teaching in a primary school in Tower Hamlets – one of the most deprived boroughs in London – then he built up the kind of CV that people in public service dream of.
He led the government’s strategy for England’s primary schools.
He became Tower Hamlets’ first director of children’s services.
He’s taught in Mozambique. He put together a national literacy initiative in the United States – and he’s been an advisor in Australia as well.
He grew up in an army family with five brothers. You can see that he knows how to get things done.
Which means that when Kevan Collins resigns from a government position – when he hasn’t been able to get things done – it looks as if something’s gone really, really wrong.
So what were Kevan Collins’ plans for English schools?
The topline of Kevan Collins’ plan was to pay for 100 extra hours of teaching per pupil in England, by adding an extra 30 minutes to the school day.
It’s obvious why that would be important.
“Well in all parts of the UK schools are closed except for vulnerable children and those whose parents are key workers. Parents and carers are having to supervise home schooling, with many lacking access to precisely the right technology and, in many cases, struggling with the cost.”News report
The average pupil has missed 115 days of school in the past year.
Kids are falling behind where they should be, and disadvantaged kids are falling even further behind.
And Kevan Collins’ plan to fix all this wasn’t pulled out of thin air.
A couple of years ago, when he was head of a charity called the Education Endowment Foundation, the charity did an analysis on a longer school day.
It found that it’s pretty effective, and it doesn’t cost that much either.
And, of course, it makes logical sense.
Kids are really far behind on core subjects like Maths and English, and there are only two ways you can help them catch up at school.
You either have to make the day longer, or you have to cut out some other subjects.
What about the money then?
Well, £15 billion does sound like a lot – and of course it is – but here are some figures to put it into context.
Researchers reckon that the long-term economic cost of all the lost learning in England from Covid could be £100 billion.
And other countries seem to be doing more to try and fix the problem. The Netherlands has a recovery plan worth £2,500 per child, and the United States £1,600 per child.
Kevan Collins’ plan would give an extra few hundred quid a year to each schoolkid in England. Suddenly that doesn’t sound that much.
So why did the Treasury kill the plan?
To understand that, you need to understand the Treasury.
It sees itself as the institution that says no.
In its eyes, its job is to be tight-fisted about money. To put a big red pen through whacky plans dreamed up in other departments.
And that means being really skeptical.
“We always have to be mindful of the money that we’re spending. It’s yours, it’s everyone else’s. And we need to have an eye on needing, at some point, to know that we have to pay things back, so we should be careful about it as well.”Rishi Sunak YouTube video
Now to explain why they said no to Kevan Collins’ plan in particular, I need to take you into the weeds of the way they think.
It’s become accepted wisdom in the Treasury that increases in current spending… what the government spends day-to-day, in other words… those increases are “difficult to switch on and off”.
The Treasury’s fear, basically, is that if you increase spending today it’s harder to reduce it tomorrow.
What starts as something temporary becomes permanent.
And that’s probably why it disliked Kevan Collins’ plans.
If you make the school day longer – and put the money into making it happen – the Treasury worries that you’ve made a new normal. And politically, it’ll be really hard to go back to the old one.
That’s not to say that this is over.
A group of Tory MPs got together with Boris Johnson’s assistant on Thursday afternoon to let them know they weren’t happy with the recovery plan.
And, lo and behold, Boris Johnson is already hinting that he might shake the magic money tree after all.
“There’s going to be more coming down the track… There’s no question that many kids are incredibly resilient – they’ve bounced back incredibly well from the pandemic – but a lot of them need help to catch up, to make good, for loss of learning that’s taken place during the pandemic.”Boris Johnson news interview
We’re still a way away from a reverse ferret, but watch this space.
Kevan Collins’ resignation might just be the kick the government needs to get serious on kids’ futures.
Today’s story was written and produced by Xavier Greenwood.
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