2 June 2021

Children deserve better than this bloodless education recovery plan

By

The National Education Union usually recoils in horror at every utterance that emerges from the Department for Education, but when Sir Kevan Collins was named as the Education Recovery Commissioner in February, even they conceded he was the right person for the job. In the snakepit of polarised factionalism that currently passes for educational ‘debate’ today, getting universal support for a high profile appointment like this is no mean feat.

Collins has over 30 years experience of working in schools and is committed to using evidence to improve teaching and learning. Unlike many ‘progressives’ with strong views on schools, Collins knows his stuff. 

This week, however, all this goodwill seems to have collided with the brick wall of political (and financial) expediency. The leaked report shows the scale of Collins’s ambition, and it requires a lot of money (around £15 billion, or £700 per pupil). But the Treasury clearly balked at the scale of the expense, and only a fraction of the additional funds have been agreed. For many, such as Geoff Barton, General Secretary, the Association of School & College Leaders, the Chancellor’s victory is a defeat for the nation’s children. 

Anyone who is currently involved in schools – selective, comprehensive, or independent – can testify to the growing number of mental health issues children are facing, many linked to lockdown.  And those who were already vulnerable have been the most affected. From the start of the pandemic it was predictable that pupils who live in stable, affluent homes would not be held back as much as  those from disadvantaged backgrounds. But does that mean middle class kids should get less support than others based purely on parental income? Who decides? In most schools those children often sit side-by-side, in the same classroom.  There are simply too many variables within individual schools, let alone school systems, to conclude which pupils have fallen behind, and what they need to catch up.  As with Teacher Assessed Grades, deciding who gets what puts schools in an invidious position. 

Collins’s recommendations can be summarised as the ‘three Ts’: time, teaching and tutoring. Extending the school day by approximately 30 minutes, one of Collins’s main steps for recovery, has proven to be too difficult and expensive to support. However the National Tutoring Programme has survived, attracting £1.4 billion spread over three years. It’s here that the real murkiness begins, and questions, rightly, are being asked about the procurement process that has resulted in the Dutch firm Randstad, a multinational outsourcing company with little experience of running tuition, being given the contract. Serious questions remain about how this is going to be run, and whether taxpayers’ money should be going supporting a company with such a murky past.

Tuition in itself can aid academic progress (if it didn’t it wouldn’t be so popular among the sharp-elbowed middle classes who already send their children to fee-paying schools). But teaching is at its most effective if it is built on good relationships. Parachuting tutors in to support children, many of whom will already have complex needs, is going to be a huge challenge: those tutors won’t know the school’s local context, its values, its approach to teaching and learning, or, crucially, the children themselves.  Emulating the relationship forged by a pupil and a teacher can’t be done quickly. Further questions, such as who measures a child’s progress, and what happens when the money dries up, haven’t been answered. The worry is that schools will have to deal with any fallout from badly delivered tutoring. 

We are left with something that nobody is happy with: a dog’s breakfast rather than a bespoke menu that meets the individual needs of children. It is an anaemic reaction to a problem which needs a full-blooded battle plan. Collins gave the government a way forward but it didn’t take it. His recommendations may well be folded into the next spending review, and possibly it is this hope, rather than a pragmatic acceptance of Whitehall politics, that has kept him from resigning from his post today. 

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David James is deputy head of an independent school in London.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.