Many of us have warned that the government’s promise to “level up” will just be a slogan unless it focuses on children, and in particular, children’s education. The stakes for the recent schools white paper then are high.
The white paper was a chance to set out ambitious plans for the future of education, to start to repair some of the damage done during the pandemic to children’s learning (and to their physical and mental well-being), as well as to address the deep-seated divides in education outcomes between the poorest and the rest that existed well before then.
Despite the language of opportunity, the chance has been missed. High-performing education systems around the world are places where the gap between those children who do well and those children who do not is narrow. Yet currently, after some progress, our attainment gaps are widening again. Our system is still leaving too many children behind. It is also failing to stop thousands of children from falling out of education altogether. The disadvantage gap will not close of its own volition, and the plan for all schools to become academies will not achieve this by itself – whatever you think of them. As Education Datalab pointed out in its recent analysis, the DfE is giving itself eight years to get GCSE results to a level that is only marginally better than what they were in 2021.
The paper puts a few things in order. Commitments on maths and English and steps to increase parental engagement through a “parent pledge” are all sensible, but they are the things that most would expect of any good school. The introduction of a standard school day might give comfort to some families, but it fails to open the door to the bigger prize of evening, weekend and holiday openings. What a difference access to sports, arts and safe places to have fun would make to our children – good for mental health and for the affordable childcare that so many families need to escape poverty.
We know that many of the challenges that affect how children perform in the classroom have their roots beyond the school gate: inadequate housing, poor transport links, low job prospects. These too needed to be part of the white paper with the leadership and mechanisms to deliver a cross-government response.
Nowhere are these challenges more obvious than in the north where children from disadvantaged backgrounds face an education gap that starts before school and widens throughout their school career. Whilst talent is everywhere, opportunity certainly is not. Disadvantaged children growing up in the north are less likely to get good A-level grades and less likely to go to university than their disadvantaged peers in the south-east. The pandemic has made things worse – children living in areas with the highest levels of infection missed more days of school, leaving them further behind, with many struggling with the appalling digital divide. The “epidemic of educational inequality” warned of recently by the education select committee has a firm grip on many areas of the north.
There are some proposals in the white paper that could have promise though. The new 55 Education Investment Areas succeed the Opportunity Areas, which were launched in 2016 as an initiative to increase social mobility in some of the UK’s most disadvantaged communities, with 12 areas given millions to be spent locally. The results look encouraging. Just one year into the programme, early years outcomes for disadvantaged pupils improved in nine of the 12 areas, and phonics results for all pupils increased in ten of the 12 areas.
The new Education Investment Areas could build on these and become test beds for new models of delivery, new innovations, new community partnerships and new data initiatives. They could nurture excellence in support for children with special educational needs, for children at risk of falling out of school, and for ambitious new approaches to the early years and colleges. If it chose to, the government could drive a commitment to closing the education gap through these Education Investment Areas and improve the education system for all children at the same time.
But this would need leadership, determination, clarity of purpose and, yes, funding. Education Investment Areas currently come with no specific funding, DfE resource, or local governance — just a “tilt” of the national programme, and what this means in practice remains unclear. In their current guise, Education Investment Areas are not the ambitious scaling up of the Opportunity Areas they could be.
Furthermore, Education Datalab also found that only 40 per cent of pupils who did not achieve the expected standard in reading, writing and maths lived in these areas. The question remains: what are we doing about the other 60 per cent in need of help? Despite the admission that the centralised National Tutoring Programme failed to deliver, the schools white paper also largely ignores the opportunities for devolution. Until the DfE releases more funding to local areas we won’t make a dent on closing the education disadvantage gap.
From my conversations with business leaders, it is clear that skills gaps are a serious problem. Apart from a welcome investment in digital infrastructure, the white paper offered little for digital skills – a massive missed opportunity for a rapidly growing industry. I’m working with the Northern Powerhouse Partnership to investigate the effect of the education disadvantage gap on future earnings. The DfE’s own research estimated that meeting its white paper targets could boost the economy by more than £30bn. The economic case for education investment is loud and clear.
Children need to be able to rely on an education system that is ambitious for their futures, with the opportunities and support to succeed wherever they live. The government’s education plans should live up to that potential. None of us can afford to keep on wasting such talent.