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A long-term education plan would prevent the short-term Covid recovery fund row

A narrow argument over whether to extend the school day has exposed the Department for Education’s lack of overall vision

A narrow argument over whether to extend the school day has exposed the Department for Education’s lack of overall vision, says Sam Freedman

The much-trailed education recovery plan has now been released to widespread condemnation and led to the resignation of recovery 'tsar' Sir Kevan Collins. The government’s package offers 15 additional hours of tuition for only some pupils and covers the cost of additional training courses for school leaders. As a response to a crisis that has seen students miss months of school, with those on low incomes worst affected, it is clearly inadequate.

Boris Johnson’s claim that more money is “coming down the track” and education secretary Gavin Williamson admitting “more needs to be done” is a tacit acknowledgement that their critics are right. Both men had supported Collins’ proposition to add half an hour to the school day for three years, adding 100 hours of schooling in total, but were overruled by the Treasury. This idea is now being reviewed prior to another round of negotiations that will form part of the autumn spending review.

The worst outcome would be forcing longer school days without proper funding

The review is cosmetic. There is a reasonably solid evidence base that extending the school day does lead to improved attainment – as long as it is used for high-quality teaching or tuition. Neither the Department for Education (DfE) or the Treasury will be able to add to this before the autumn. Nor is there any doubt that the majority of parents would support the measures.[1] It is simply a mechanism to delay the decision until the whole departmental budget is being negotiated.

The risk is that, in their desperation to be seen to be doing something, DfE and No.10 end up accepting cuts elsewhere to get sign-off for the extra half hour. To an extent this is already happening, with £120m of the extra £1bn for tuition covered by a stealth cut to the pupil premium. Forcing schools to add more time without adequate funding would be the worst possible outcome as it would overburden already overstretched teachers.

Instead DfE should consider why this whole discussion has narrowed to a debate about extra time in the school day – revealing once more its lack of overall vision. The last white paper to be implemented was the one I helped write back in 2010. There is no clear approach to overall system improvement either academically or around the role schools have to play in wider support to children. Without this it is difficult to propose anything as part of a Covid recovery package that doesn’t feel like a bolt-on. It can’t form part of a more substantive, coherent and long-term plan because there isn’t one.

The government needs to set out a long-term plan for education policy

Ideally the government would use the time between now and the spending review to set out its long-term vision. This would involve answering a number of key questions: does it want all schools to be academies, and if so does it want them all to join multi-academy trusts? Who does it see within the system as responsible for school improvement, and how does this connect to the various mechanisms used to hold schools accountable? What is the role of the local authority? What combination of the school and other institutions should provide pastoral support to young people? And so on.

It would then be possible to identify how to best use additional short-term funding to help those pupils most affected by Covid. Additional time may be part of this but so might capacity funding for multi-academy trusts to run support across a network, or funding local authorities to identify those students that have dropped out of education altogether over the last year.

It might also look to join up the different stages of education. The Collins recovery plan focused entirely on schools but many older pupils who’ve lost out as a result of Covid will now be in further or higher education. DfE has made surprisingly little attempt to connect the sectors since taking back responsibility for tertiary education in 2016.

No doubt the Treasury would still try and keep the price tag of such a plan as low as possible. But by presenting requests for funding as part of an integrated vision DfE could show how refusal to fund it properly would undermine the system as a whole. It’s much easier to say no to a discrete bolt-on. It would also help heads and teachers understand what is expected of them and how it fits into a bigger picture. A short-term plan simply cannot work without a long-term one.



Johnson government
Institute for Government

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