A Question of Priorities

Karam Bales looks behind yesterday’s resignation of education recovery chief Kevan Collins

I thought education was the government’s priority and it was a moral duty for schools to be open? The government even appointed a catch-up tsar, Kevan Collins, to show just how seriously they were taking education. He estimated it would cost £15 billion: it’s said that the DfE asked for 10 billion, but the Treasury could only find £1.5 billion. It’s not unexpected that reality doesn’t match up to rhetoric.

In the 2019 General Election the Institute for Fiscal Studies estimated around £14 billion per annum was required to return spending levels to those seen at the start of the Coalition government. The Tory Manifesto spending proposals did amount to an increase of £14 billion – however this would be the total over the next 4 or 5 years, rather than per annum and was heavily weighted towards the next general election. So around 83% of schools still faced real term cuts in the years after the election.

Before this year’s Queen’s Speech, the Sutton Trust recommended £750m should be invested into Pupil Premium. The government provided £302m while at the same time changing the date for Pupil Premium calculations which deprived schools of roughly £150m in funding.

Yesterday’s announcement equates to £50 per pupil. To put the government’s ambitions into perspective, the US are increasing spending by £1,600 per pupil while the Netherlands are investing £2,500 per pupil. For a government that talks of international league tables as a form of educational arms race, they are once again talking bazookas while arming us with spud guns.

The announcement was heralded by Gavin Williamson who toured the media studios. But by the evening, Kevan Collins resigned from the post he had only begun in February. To make matters worse, in an interview with Robert Peston, Nadhim Zahawi then tried to blame the teaching unions for blocking the government’s plans to extend the school day, a statement that was resoundingly rebutted by the National Education Union’s Dr Mary Boustead. Kevan Collins had discussed his proposals with the NEU, reassuring us that no change to teachers’ contracts would be required, and we were prepared to come out in support of the government if they followed through with the plans.

Besides a paucity of ambition, the proposals also show a lack of trust in the Head Teachers who have shown incredible adaptability, as the have been forced to dance to the Department for Education’s tune of late night guidance changes without notice. Of the £1.5 billion, only £580m will go directly to Heads. The rest goes to other plans, including those that were already in the pipeline. Heads are concerned there will be caveats to how the money will be spent, as has been the case previously.

The main thrust of the government’s plan is tuition, mainly the National Tutoring Programme (NTP) which began in June last year with £350m of initial investment, topped up with another £400m this February. The NTP has already received a scathing report from the National Audit Office in March. Roll out has been slower than expected: only 41,100 students out of the expected 125,200 have started to receive their tutoring, and only 44% of these students were classed as Pupil Premium.

What had been sold as a rapid response has reached 15% of its intended targets. With a business model of subcontracting, concerns have also been raised regarding standards and profit making after TSL, one of 33 providers approved by the NTP, was discovered employing tutors as young as 17 in Sri Lanka for wages as little as £1.57 per hour. Tutoring companies are paid around £50 per hour to provide the service to schools which pay £12 an hour from their own budgets, with the rest being topped up with government funding. More funding is expected now that control of has now awarded to Ranstad, the international outsourcing company, despite its inexperience in the education sector.

The government’s strategy might not plug gaps in lost learning or provide the pastoral care many students will need, but it will create a multi-billion pound tutoring market run by private sector interests, which is what, months before we ever heard of Covid, some of those involved with developing and running the NTP were lobbying the government for.

The money would be better spent if government gave it directly to Heads and trusted them to spend the money on what they thought would best support the students whom they know infinitely better than the DfE’s denizens. Key proposals I’m seeing from front line educators are more staff for additional planning, preparation and assessment time, smaller class sizes, so they have more time to focus on the quality of teaching, and for investment in employing and training additional support staff.

Due to austerity, we have lost 15,000 support staff, mainly classroom-based, who supported the most disadvantaged and vulnerable students. The paucity of the government’s education proposals, which won’t even plug the gaps created since 2010, means there is an increasing number of support staff reviews being carried out now with rounds of redundancies on the horizon. 

We are years into a teaching retention crisis which will take years to resolve, but we also have a wealth of experienced, under-valued support staff in our schools. I’ve lost count of how many teachers have called a Teaching Assistant or Cover Supervisor a lifeline in the early years of their career. Rather than preparing for redundancies, we should be investing in specialist training with appropriate remuneration for expanded responsibilities. 

Meanwhile more nurseries are set to close, with the sector looking like it might completely collapse unless the government takes decisive action soon, and Further Education, where so many of the Covid exam year groups will have a chance to find their feet, will continue to suffer from chronic underfunding gap of at least a billion.

The catch-up proposals also fall foul of another common error. Education is more than what happens within the classroom. School hunger, air pollution, cramped, crowded and noisy living conditions, insecure housing, and family financial difficulties are all examples of factors that can throw up barriers to learning that the government is capable of acting on. After all this talk of students’ mental health in the media, Child & Adolescent Mental Health Services, the service that supports them  is still on its knees due to austerity, as are many of the other local services that used to support families. There is so much more the government could have chosen to do.

Amid all this talk of catching up for lost learning, there is one issue that seems glaring in its omission from most of the media debate. How much more learning are students set to lose before we reach the summer holidays? If the government is balking at the cost of catch-up, why aren’t they doing all they can to prevent disruptive Covid outbreaks in education? Why did they ignore SAGE’s advice and make the recommendation that masks should be removed in secondary classrooms? Why haven’t they invested in ventilation?

We are seeing what appears to be an increase in outbreaks and large scale isolations in education as the Delta B1.617.2 variant seems to be spreading in schools. I say ‘appear’, because the government is refusing to release data on Delta cases in education. We have been asking for this data since May 7th, we were promised it would be released on May13th and it still hasn’t been released. The Observer reports that Downing Street has blocked its release after it was originally included in a draft Public Health England report but not in the final document. Scientists, not just in the UK, are calling out for the government to release this data and legal action has also been launched.

For fear it might scupper his plans for “Freedom day”, is Johnson suppressing information that shows schools becoming hubs of transmission for the Delta strain? If education is a priority, allowing the highly infectious Delta strain to run rampant through our students seems a strange way of showing it. Considering which communities and students are likely to be most impacted by outbreaks; this also seems counter-productive to the “leveling up” agenda.

However, if this is the case, then it is beyond reckless, not just at a national level. This could be the kind of vital information that might make other governments, particularly those with less vaccinated populations, change policy, possibly saving thousands of lives.

Karam Bales is a member of the National Education Union Executive, writing in a personal capacity.

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