The Tories’ School Catch-Up Plan Will Leave Poor Kids Further Behind

The Tories have approved school catch-up funding of as little as £50 per pupil per year, compared to £1,600 in the US and £2,500 in Holland – just the latest policy which will punish poorer kids the most.

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Imagine you are Gavin Williamson. Your tenure in the Department for Education has so far been defined by incompetence, delusion, and sheer contempt for the young people under your remit. Your priority is to carry out your role with maximum indifference and minimal effort.

A global pandemic has disrupted more than a years’ worth of education for the nation’s schoolchildren, risking damage to their life prospects and wellbeing that could echo across an entire generation. A widely-respected, experienced education sector expert hands you a comprehensive, radical, fully-costed response plan. All you have to do is say ‘yes’. What do you do?

No wonder Kevan Collins resigned as education recovery minister after five months, as his robust, long-term investment plan to repair the educational and pastoral harm done to the country’s schoolchildren was tossed in the bin this week. His proposal was a £15 billion ‘catch-up’ scheme but the Treasury instead approved a Boris Johnson-endorsed £1.4 billion programme of tutoring for disadvantaged pupils and training support for teachers. Collins resigned in dismay over the ‘half-hearted’ measures almost immediately after their announcement.

An overly-simplistic, single-issue response, Johnson’s initiative equates to around £50 spent per pupil per year, according to estimates from the Education Policy Institute. Factoring in prior recovery funding, the figure is £310 per pupil over three years; similar plans in the US work out to £1,600 per pupil, and in the Netherlands, to £2,500. It has been condemned across the board as ‘futile’ with more detailed and generous proposals already drawn up not only by the Labour Party but also Conservative backbenchers.

Basically a short-sighted extension of this year’s £350 million National Tutoring Programme, this plan ignores the insight offered not only by Collins and the EPI, but also by teaching unions such as the NEU and NASUWT, and the workers they represent. And as always, it will be those workers on the ground—and the children they work tirelessly to support—who will pay the price when this flimsily-assembled framework fails under the weight of its significant burden.

While there is hardly a consensus on the definitive ins-and-outs of an effective catch-up and support plan for schoolchildren, plenty of ideas have been bandied about within the education sector with enough frequency that any government with a functioning ear and the political will to invest properly need only listen to those with the ideas and point the money in the right direction. If there is money spare for a new royal yacht, there should be money spare for the nation’s children – and there a plenty of ways to spend it.

Collins’ proposals go beyond the classroom, aiming to provide opportunities for pupils to engage in extracurricular activities such as sport, music, and the arts as part of a more holistic approach to the buzzy concept of ‘catch-up’. He also entertains the idea of extending the school day, which has been met with concern by sector workers as well as parents and guardians. But the plan does encourage us towards a more radical mindset which reorients conceptions of schooling so the system can be built in a way that works for today’s children, especially the most disadvantaged and vulnerable.

It is these children who must be at the heart of any recovery policy – and any recovery policy must be far-reaching, long-term, and multifaceted. Professor of social mobility Lee Elliot Major told the Today programme that children in the UK had lost 110 of a potential 190 classroom days over successive school closures, and about two million did no learning at all in the first lockdown – the overwhelming majority of whom will be poorer and working-class children with reduced or no access to essential materials and technology for remote learning.

A pre-pandemic attainment gap of 18 months’ learning between the most disadvantaged children and their better-off peers will surely be seen to widen into a chasm in the coming months and years, so funding must be diverted to where it is needed most. State schools already receive Pupil Premium funding of £1,320 per pupil at primary level and £935 at secondary for every socio-economically disadvantaged child on their registers, and this funnel directly into the institutions working with the hardest-hit children must be the focus of an increase in spending.

This must be coupled with a closer collaboration between the DfE and the schools and teaching staff it oversees. The focus should not be on prescriptive and regressive policies like the creation of behavioural management centres that train staff to curb the supposedly ‘out of control’ behaviour of the youngest participants in the most significant collective trauma suffered in a generation. Instead, the government should be providing forums for education workers and teaching unions to advise and influence policy, as well as greater financial and decision-making autonomy on matters specific to the requirements of their own pupils.

Extended school days have been tabled, but a wider restructure of the school year, increased funding for mental health and pastoral care, and (whisper it) better pay for teaching staff are more meaningful ways to boost public perceptions on the importance of quality, well-rounded schooling.

As for assessments, while this year’s Year 11 cohort will receive their GCSEs based on teacher-assessed grades from the work they have completed, their Year 10 classmates have no idea what the most decisive time of their educational career will look like when they get to exam season in 2022. Now is the time to look at how and why we assess our pupils through high-stakes, end-of-year examinations, while considering more productive, fairer and more representative alternatives such as coursework, group work, oral exams and open-book assessments – as is the case in Finland, long held up as a gold standard of education around the world.

While certainly not the sole solution, the government’s pet focus on tutoring should most certainly be part of the wider response – one-to-one and small-group tutoring is undeniably effective in raising pupil attainment, though the cost of private services is prohibitive to all but the most affluent.

But the National Tutoring Programme is imperfect, especially as the tender for its operation has now been handed over to Dutch human resources behemoth Randstad – a company best known for scanning the faces of homeless people in the US.

This kind of cost-cutting and outsourcing only fuels criticisms that have surrounded the NTP since its unveiling. It is especially galling given that Randstad was selected over a bid by the National Tutoring Foundation, a charity set up by key figures formerly of the Education Endowment Foundation and Ofsted with the sole purpose of running the programme in the interests of disadvantaged pupils.

Many providers on the NTP—including my own organisation Action Tutoring—are charities with a focus on socio-economic justice for children, and the appointment of this foundation would have done much to create a linked-up, cross-sector force for good and allay justifiable concerns that the futures of our children most in need were simply being sold down the river in another act of Tory cronyism.

The summer holidays are only seven weeks away. Rather than the usual relief and euphoria, schoolchildren across the country are likely to be feeling a mixture of confusion and dread. There is no telling what the next school year will look like, nor is there any sign of a meaningful roadmap being drawn up by the DfE. It is clear that the next stage will need ambition and imagination, of which Williamson and his colleagues are severely lacking. But if they fail this test, it will be the children most in need who will suffer the most.