Our CEO, James Turner, argues for ten key issues that should be prioritised in the government’s new education recovery plan.
No one doubts that the impact of the pandemic on children’s and young people’s life chances is going to wash through the system for years to come. Our own research has highlighted the disproportionate impact of school closures on poorer students, who have struggled most with home schooling. At the start of lockdown our sister charity, the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF), reckoned the pandemic could reverse a decade of (albeit modest) progress in narrowing the attainment gap – and their first study of real data shows the primary school gap has now increased to the equivalent of seven months’ learning. There is a hard economic cost too: our research from London Economics demonstrated that the cost to the current cohort of secondary school students will amount to around £11bn, as the impacts are felt well beyond school, into FE, HE, apprenticeships and the world of work.
So the case for a significant programme to help pupils recover – and then thrive – is widely accepted. But not all plans are the same. As Sir Kevan Collins, the Education Recovery Commissioner, prepares his proposals for government, there are ten key issues we hope are addressed to ensure opportunity and social mobility are centre stage.
- Funding to match the scale of the problem. The recovery plan must be ambitious, long term and multi-faceted. This will cost money, but the long-term cost of failing to act will be higher. Most of this investment should be in the hands of schools to decide, with support and guidance, how best to meet the needs of their pupils. But at a time of national crisis, there is also room in the mix for ambitious programmes which can achieve more through a coordinated approach. The government’s £300m commitment to the recovery premium back in March is a good start. This should be ideally increased (at the Trust we proposed £750m per year, or £400 per pupil premium student) and certainly sustained for the rest of this Parliament.
- A laser-like focus on disadvantage. Study after study has shown how the pandemic has affected poorer families most – and in education this inequality has been felt especially acutely. The recovery plan must stand the test of being transformative for the poorest groups, who were already well behind their peers pre–pandemic – and all the signs are that this gap will have widened from early years upwards, with certain parts of the country particularly badly affected. As well as directing funding, effort and focus to the poorest pupils, it will be vital for government to monitor the impact of Covid on the attainment gap in the longer term, to help target further support where necessary.
- More time – but with a purpose. Many of the ideas on the table are variants on the theme of having children in education for longer, whether through summer schools, weekend lessons or extended school days. According to the evidence, these approaches can be effective – but only if they are well structured and high quality, led by people who are trained in their fields. And we need to be clear on their purpose (academics, creativity, sports, arts) so that the sessions can be designed accordingly. Simply providing extended childcare through schools won’t itself narrow the gap. Crucially, we need to ensure poorer pupils turn up – otherwise well-intentioned initiatives could actually widen the gap.
- Promote skills and well-being, as well as attainment. It remains the case that a decent crop of qualifications is one of the most precious assets to any young person, opening doors to further education and work. While good academics are necessary, they are not sufficient — especially when children have suffered emotionally from the pandemic too. So any recovery plan also needs to provide resources and programmes to support wellbeing and the development of important life skills. Sport, arts and drama, clubs and societies – all have a part to play. It’s a win-win combination because essential life skills such as confidence, motivation, resilience and communication are also associated with better academic outcomes and better prospects in the workplace.
- Close forever the digital divide – and realise the potential of online learning. The pandemic laid bare the extent of technological poverty in the UK – families struggling to participate in home schooling because they did not have a laptop or tablet, or making do with a pay–as–you–go phone shared between siblings. Over a million laptops have now been distributed by government and others – so we are closer than ever to bridging the digital divide. If we can keep it closed, online learning can switch from being a necessity to a way of opening up new ways of teaching and learning, sharing the very best practice from across the sector. Access to technology and a good quality internet connection should now be seen as a necessity for learning, not a luxury.
- Democratise access to tutoring. Of all the recovery ideas on the table, the evidence behind one–to–one and small group tutoring is the strongest. All too often it has been presented as a panacea – which it isn’t – but that shouldn’t detract from the significant role it can play in recovery and in spreading opportunity. The National Tutoring Programme, which is barely ten months old, has ensured hundreds of thousands of children will receive the sort of high-quality tutoring which was previously the preserve of the better off. This strong start needs to be built on, with a long-term plan; a renewed focus on reaching the most disadvantaged; and flexible opportunities for schools to engage with tutors as a source of supportive, expert extra capacity.
- Don’t forget post 16. In a year of turmoil for everyone, it is hard to pinpoint one group who have been the most impacted, but those making their way in FE must have a pretty good claim. Two crucial years of education disrupted, compounded by ongoing uncertainty around exams and future opportunities. Yet most of the significant policy solutions – the recovery premium, the pupil premium, the National Tutoring Programme – end at age 16. It is vital that this support is extended to get students back on track for A Levels, T Levels, BTECs, and for those who need GCSE passes to progress. Colleges and sixth forms would then be able to invest in high quality CPD, incentives to get specialist teachers, support for students resitting English and maths GCSEs, and interventions which support transitions into careers and further study.
- Extend to the early years. At the other end of the spectrum, the pandemic reminded us how crucial the early years sector is for the functioning of our daily lives and our children’s futures. But it also laid bare the fragility of a sector which comprises many small and poorly funded private providers. A reinvigorated early years policy which focuses on education and child outcomes is needed to reverse a gap between poor children and others which is as much as 11 months at age five. Increased gaps in school readiness due to missed early learning could have consequences in the school system throughout the next decade. Eligibility for funded early education should be extended beyond the current 30 hours offer, which excludes many of those who need support the most. And the Early Years Pupil Premium should be increased to the same per-hour rate as for primary schools.
- Routes to progression. When push comes to shove, what matters most to young people is not how Covid-affected exam grades compare to previous groups, but whether they are able to take the next steps on their education and career journeys. Some way of recognising lost learning in exam grades (for example through a starred grade) might be part of the solution but is fraught with challenges. Most important is making sure there are sufficient university and college places, high quality apprenticeship starts, internships, and jobs for graduates and young people – and that these places are fairly allocated, recognising that the most disadvantaged have faced even more adversity over the last twelve months.
- Teaching is the key. Without doubt, teaching is the most important factor in improving the outcomes of all pupils, and especially the poorest. We need to harness the likely boost in applications for teacher training we’ll see over the coming months – and incentivise the most effective teachers to work in the most disadvantaged schools. At a school level, a very good use of pupil premium funds, any additional resources that come through catch–up funding, would be on teacher wages, workload and professional development. And at a government level, further incentives for teacher pay could also be considered, as well as phased retention bursaries for teachers in challenging schools, as set out in the Teacher Recruitment and Retention Strategy. Consideration should also be given to any additional support around well-being that teachers working in deprived schools might need.
The appointment of Sir Kevan, former head of the Education Endowment Foundation, means that evidence of what works will no doubt be a guiding light to the recovery plan. This means the proposals will stand the very best chance of really making a difference to young lives. The government has made a great decision on his appointment – they should now listen to what he has to say.