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6 September 2021

The UK government hasn’t even begun to confront its huge education challenge

From Covid-19 to next year’s exams to helping pupils catch up, schools need help, but ministers are nowhere to be seen.

By Sam Freedman

There’s an old joke about a mother waking her son up on the first day of term. “I don’t want to go to school,” he whines. “The kids hate me, the work’s too hard, give me one good reason why I should.” She replies: “You’re the headteacher.”

This September the joke feels more apt than ever after two of the most difficult, disrupted years since the start of mass education. School leaders and their staff face a daunting list of challenges, and a government that has so far failed to give anywhere near enough help.

For a start Covid-19 is still with us. The Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation has declined to approve vaccines for 12-15 year olds, but even if it changes its mind in the face of public pressure these will take time to deliver and won’t help primary schools. There is a risk that a surge in cases, as we’ve seen in Scotland, where schools went back earlier, will cause significant disruption over the next term. It’s unlikely that schools will close across the country, but we may see individual ones shutting down due to staff shortages or a localised epidemic. And many children may have to isolate – albeit not as many as last term, given the relaxation of bubble policies.

The government, having failed to help schools improve ventilation, is hoping that regular mass testing will keep things in check. But it’s hard to believe that most families will test their children twice a week indefinitely. So any prospect of recovery is complicated by the risk of further learning loss.

If and when we’re able to get Covid under control, the challenge of catching up on the losses of the past two years then becomes the focus. A recent report from SchoolDash (a website that tracks education data) based on assessments used by thousands of schools annually found that primary school pupils are still two to three months behind on average in maths, with worse results for those in the north and the Midlands. The report also shows how the gap between students on pupil premium and the rest has widened yet further as a result of different levels of learning loss.

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The government’s only significant investment in fixing this problem has been the National Tutoring Programme, with £433m going to a central scheme and £579m going to schools to develop local provision. Unfortunately, the central scheme has turned into a procurement mess. Against ministers’ wishes, it is being run by the Dutch recruitment firm Randstad, which undercut other bidders, and as a result many of the best tutoring charities are walking away. It’s a salutary study in how centrally devised evidence-based policies (there is strong evidence that tutoring works) can nevertheless fall apart upon implementation.

[see also: Gavin Willamson’s attack on Oxford students shows his warped priorities]

Making an effective dent in learning loss, and in particular the increased gap between rich and poor, will require more money, targeted at those that need it most. Head teacher groups and a coalition of some of the biggest and best academy trusts have made the case for an additional £6bn package over three years, including an extra pupil premium for the most disadvantaged, as well as more post-16 funding for young people with low GCSE grades. This is the minimum needed at the autumn spending review to deal with the scale of the challenge, and the funding will need to start this year, not 2022/23.

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Schools also need immediate clarity over what they’re supposed to be teaching this year. We are still waiting for the exams regulator Ofqual to confirm arrangements for next summer. It has indicated adjustments will be made to some courses to account for the reduction in teaching time, but without providing the detail teachers need to adjust their plans. As well as the uncertainty over the content, we still don’t know how exams will be graded next summer. The marked increase in grades over the past two years means the government needs either to return to the 2019 profile and see a large, unfair drop for the 2022 cohort, or “bake in” the grade inflation for a few more years. It is rumoured that the currently preferred option is a “glide path” back to 2019 over several years, which would mean each cohort taking an unfair drop in grades for the rest of this parliament.

Beyond the immediate challenges of Covid recovery, there remain unanswered questions about education that the government has put off during the long years of Brexit and Covid. There is, for instance, still no clarity about the role of local authorities in a system made up predominantly of academies, nor are there any ideas as to how to hold academy trusts properly accountable.

Then there is the mental health crisis in schools, exacerbated by Covid, with a 68 per cent increase in referrals among young people over the past two years. This has put the child and adolescent mental health service (CAMHS) on the verge of collapse. Serious cases are now routinely rejected, and even if they are accepted, children wait months to be seen. It is schools, with untrained staff, that are bearing the brunt.

All this is before you get to longstanding problems such as teacher retention and adequate support for special educational needs.

What we have seen, though, over the past two years is that schools are resilient institutions, able to adapt (often at a day or two’s notice) to provide online teaching, IT support, food banks and mass testing. The commitment that so many teachers and leaders have shown to supporting their students and the community through the pandemic has been admirable.

It would make a substantial difference this year if the government could behave with even half as much sense of purpose and duty.