Dave Lister on how penny pinching provoked the resignation of top government commissar
The appointment of Sir Kevan Collins as Education Recovery Commissar arose from the concern that children from less well-off families had found it harder to make normal educational progress during the pandemic than their more comfortably off peers. A DfE report calculated that this was “equivalent to undoing between one-third and two-thirds of the progress made in the last decade in closing the disadvantage gap in primary schools” and, as a result of the further disruption caused by the most recent school closures, the gap could widen even further. Boris Johnson was in no doubt about the urgency of this situation. “I am absolutely determined”, he said, “that no child will be left behind as a result of the pandemic”.
So Sir Kevan was appointed to the accompaniment of fanfares from the Government. He was a former teacher, Director of Children’s Services and then Chief Executive in Tower Hamlets, they pointed out, and most recently Chief Executive of the Education Endowment Foundation. He then began working towards recommending an extension of the school day and the organisation of summer schools to help those children who had regressed to catch up on their missed learning. He talked about using online learning, supporting teachers in their professional development and summer schools for new year 7 children, focusing on improving their reading skills, but emphasised that they needed to be engaging and motivating for young people and not a big turn-off (my words). Whilst Government ministers were probably envisaging that the extra tutoring and summer activities would mainly address reading and maths, Sir Kevan saw the importance of a broader curriculum and wanted sport, music and the arts generally to be covered also. None of this could be delivered effectively without substantial funding, it should be noted.
Then came the bombshell for the Government. Their celebrated Commissar resigned in protest at a funding package he described as falling “far short of what was needed… A half-hearted approach risking failing hundreds of thousands of pupils”. It appears that he was calling for a package costed at £15 billion whilst the Government was offering a comparatively paltry £1.4 billion. Yet a little over six months earlier they had unfurled a £16.5 billion programme of military spending, which was in addition to their commitment to increase military spending by 0.5% annually. This was their priority. Not catch-up, or foreign aid for that matter. Labour’s shadow education secretary Kate Green commented that Sir Kevan’s resignation was “a damning indictment of the Conservatives’ education catch-up plan… He was brought in by Boris Johnson because of his experience and expertise in education, but the Government has thrown out his ideas as soon as it came to stumping up the money needed to deliver them”.
There are, however, some broader issues to consider. Some people in the education world have questioned whether the emphasis should be on additional hours of learning and summer schools at this stage rather than focusing on children’s wellbeing and support for their mental health. Playing with their friends should be the priority, not swotting up on missed learning. An article in the Times Educational Supplement also questioned the value of additional after school classes, arguing that children learn best in the morning and by the end of the school day are taking in less and less information. These points need to be balanced against the genuine concern that children from more deprived backgrounds have lost out on the learning progress that they would have made in usual circumstances. It would also be interesting to know the extent to which schools are tackling this issue by interventions during the normal school day.
Another controversy has emerged as the Government has assured secondary schools that it is now safe for children to remove their masks. Teaching and non-teaching unions have opposed this based on data from the Office for National Statistics, which showed that secondary-age children had the highest rate of Covid-19 infection of any age group in the week ending 29th May. In Bolton, almost one in three secondary pupils were absent because of Covid in the same week.
Meanwhile the hapless Secretary of State for Education, Gavin Williamson, continues in post despite all his failures. Angela Eagle asked: “Why are the Secretary of State’s powers of persuasion so inadequate that he has only been able to persuade the Chancellor to fund a mere tenth of Sir Kevan Collins’s admirable catch-up plan?” The question remains unanswered.