It’s a pledge that we’ve heard repeatedly. Since lockdowns were enforced and schools first shut their gates, the government has made promises to the nation to prioritise education recovery for young people.
The need to help them regain lost learning is palpable, with pupils said to be on average between two and three months behind where they would ordinarily be had the pandemic not happened. We also know that pupils starting now need more support with basic skills like communication: teachers have raised alarm bells about worrying speech and language delays in the very youngest children.
But it’s not just academic catch-up we should be worried about. Cases of probable mental health disorders increased from about one in nine young people to one in six following the pandemic, and we’re only now beginning to understand how their wellbeing has suffered as a result of isolation and anxiety.
And so the appointment of Kevan Collins as the government’s lead adviser on education recovery earlier this year provided much-needed reassurance that government plans would be evidence-based, and work urgently to address these mounting problems. Seldom has the appointment of a “tsar” been met with zero controversy – a testament to the experience and gravitas of Collins.
According to reports, he delivered exactly what was needed – a bold plan addressing the impact of lost learning and socialisation time for children and young people from the early years of education through to college.
Indeed, his plan mirrored the recommendations of the Education Policy Institute (of which I am chief executive) to government. This was neither coincidence nor conspiracy – the evidence of effective policies and practices led to a clear set of conclusions.
High-quality teaching, particularly in the most disadvantaged schools, combined with more time on academic support and wellbeing activities, are proven to help boost school attainment and close the gap between disadvantaged pupils and their peers. A focus on quality teaching and working with parents in the early years can support children’s outcomes earlier on in life, with those positive outcomes being sustained as children progress through school.
A package of support on this scale requires a serious commitment of new funding and time. We’ve estimated that up to £15bn will be needed over the course of this parliament alone. That’s not an insignificant ask, but it is a drop in the ocean compared to the cost that we (or, rather, our children) will bear if we don’t get this right.
Left unaddressed, we could see falls in individual income of up to £50,000 in lifetime earnings, or a total hit of up to £420bn to the economy. That’s based on the cost of lost time in school, without even taking account of the harm the pandemic has caused to young people’s wellbeing.
The government’s announcement earlier this week to spend only a tenth of the amount required is therefore breathtakingly disappointing. While more money for tuition and teacher training is welcome, the government’s plans fall far short of what experts have been calling for. And it’s not just the size of the pot that’s a problem: pupils in colleges and sixth forms have been left with little to no support and a deafening silence from ministers.
Indeed, the government’s paltry pledge pales in comparison with other countries. We’ve found that the £1.4bn unveiled this week equates to about £50 per pupil per year, while other countries have provided more generous and longer-term support. The total level of funding for recovery for England (counting previous funding before this week) amounts to about £300 per pupil, which is still dwarfed by the £1,600 per pupil in the US and £2,500 in the Netherlands.
It’s no wonder then that Collins felt he had no choice but to resign. The government missed an important moment to listen to one of the few experts with the support of the country, and his resignation is a major setback to both the government’s plans and its reputation.
While there may be more to come in this autumn’s spending review, headteachers, parents and pupils need certainty now, and a long-term commitment that the government will support them to make up for the time lost during the pandemic.
The need for more support is greater still among disadvantaged children and young people. Before the pandemic struck, they were already more than a year and a half behind their peers by the time they left school. That gap has widened over the past 12 months as a result of inequalities in access to decent technology and a home environment that is conducive to learning and positive mental health.
Unless he can deliver a bolder and more generous package of support for young people, the prime minister will soon fall short on his commitments to “level up” communities that have been left behind. Any progress that has been made on reducing inequalities in education in the past decade or so will now be wiped out, and an entire generation of schoolchildren will be at risk of long-term scarring.
We cannot afford to fail our young people like this.