3rd June, 2021 8:47 am
Our children deserve better than this half-hearted plan
When I was appointed education recovery commissioner in February, I was set a single exam question: what should be done to help children catch up learning lost in the pandemic?
During a 40-year career in education, I have been accountable for the performance of hundreds of schools and led national reforms affecting millions of children. But advising the government on the education recovery plan has been the most important task of my professional life.
The recovery approach we take will reveal our commitment to a generation of children. After the hardest of years, a comprehensive recovery plan — adequately funded and sustained over multiple years — would rebuild a stronger and fairer system. A half-hearted approach risks failing hundreds of thousands of pupils.
I do so thinking about my meetings with over a thousand parents and school leaders over the past four months. Phrases like “lost learning” can feel intangible, but from their testimony and close analysis of assessment data, it is clear that the challenges facing our children are real.
James Heckman, a Nobel Prize winning economist, coined a memorable phrase that highlights the long-term risk of a failed recovery: “skills beget skills”. This is the educational equivalent of “a stitch in time saves nine”. In countries where children have missed school for long periods without effective mitigation, the effects are apparent years later.
One conservative estimate puts the long-term economic cost of lost learning in England due to the pandemic at £100 billion, with the average pupil having missed 115 days in school. In parts of the country where schools were closed for longer, such as the north, the impact of low skills on productivity is likely to be particularly severe.
The pandemic has affected all pupils but hit disadvantaged children hardest. A decade’s progress to narrow the attainment gap between disadvantaged children and their peers is estimated to have been reversed.
England’s recovery will determine whether our education system can be called “world class” in years to come. The Netherlands has announced a recovery plan worth £2,500 per child, despite shorter school closures relative to England. The United States announced a $130 billion plan, worth equivalent to £1,600 per pupil.
It is also right to extend access to tutoring, in particular to support disadvantaged children. Tutoring can provide valuable support that complements classroom teaching. But it is not a panacea and must be high quality to make a difference.
This is one reason why I recommended schools and colleges be funded to extend school time for a fixed, three-year period. It would be counterproductive if pupils were removed from the classroom for academic help to be delivered, and equally misguided if music or sport were squeezed out in the rush to catch-up.
I recommended providing significant funding for a flexible extension to school time, equivalent to 30 minutes extra every day. From the perspective of teachers, extra time would have been optional and paid, with schools also able to use the time to offer enrichment activities that children have missed out on.
The package of support announced yesterday falls far short of what is needed. It is too narrow, too small and will be delivered too slowly. The average primary school will directly receive just £6,000 per year, equivalent to £22 per child. Not enough is being done to help vulnerable pupils, children in the early years or 16 to 19-year-olds.
Above all, I am concerned that the package announced today betrays an undervaluation of the importance of education, for individuals and as a driver of a more prosperous and healthy society.
There has been debate throughout the pandemic about the role of experts, but I have always been clear: experts advise, politicians decide. I am sorry not to have secured the comprehensive support for children that I believe is needed. But the final decision was not mine.
Despite this disappointment, I leave my role with optimism. The parents and teachers I have spoken to share a fierce determination that the past year cannot be allowed to limit the opportunities of the children they love and work with. But they will need more support than has been provided so far.
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