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8 September

Why we can’t blame Covid for the state of schools

Funding cuts have left us struggling for well over two years.

By Kate Clanchy

Schools may have declined in the last decade, but data about schools has improved. These days, the stats of SATs readily reveal not just how well 11-year-olds did in their primary school exams but how far they have come: how much progress they have made since reception and how well they cope with special education needs or social disadvantage.

Or, this year, how they didn’t cope. For the first time since Michael Gove introduced his much-hated “fronted adverbial” SATs in 2012, a generation of school children has been shown to have done substantially worse than the one before them. Within that, the gap between the progress of well-off and disadvantaged families has widened catastrophically to its biggest in ten years.     

It’s tempting to blame the whole thing on Covid. The Department for Education did, and so, by convenient inference, families. There are contrasts to be made between the families who managed well (pupils with English as second language bucked the trend) and those that didn’t (the gap widened most in Oldham) and morals to be implied. 

A decline as sharp as this, though, is not a two-year phenomenon. Schools, especially primary schools, are tankers of goodwill, filled to the gunnels with the hope that every parent invests in their child and the idealism of teachers. Powered by community aspiration, they are able to keep motoring even over enormous obstacles, for example Gove’s SATs. Required to teach something even as pointless and retrograde as advanced parsing to ten-year-olds, most teachers simply knuckled down and taught the children how to improve, year on year. 

Tankers like this are hard to turn. Classrooms will accommodate extra desks, buckets will be put under the drips, second-hand books sourced. Teachers will buy their own glue sticks and parents run fêtes. Trips will be cut, then new books, then cleaners. Teaching assistants will be stretched between children with special needs, their lunch-time pay cut, afternoons will be shortened, half days instituted rather than turn children away. Headteachers will organise all this, see the pain, do staff cover themselves, and worry for years before they complain. Teachers can be underpaid for decades before they actually leave. New recruits arrive even when they have to pay for their own training, work exhausting hours and can barely afford a room in one of our overpriced southern cities because teaching has an endless appeal: it’s a vocation.

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There is, though, a turning point for everything. A crisis in recruiting headteachers began before the pandemic: only people who passionately care would do such a job, and they needed the possibility of doing it well. Hope was disappearing in 2019, and it is draining rapidly now. The same is true of teachers. Each good, experienced teacher who goes leaves more pressure for those left behind. This winter there will be higher fuel bills and wage bills and no allowances for them. The tanker is turning. The momentum is running the other way. As schools go to pieces those worst hurt will be the poor children. At least the data can tell us that.

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[See also: Liz Truss and the cost of winning]

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