Investing in education

Education hit the headlines over the half term break, when the government announced its education recovery plan. The announcement included an additional £1.4bn to be invested in education over the next three years. This is, by any stretch, a large amount of money – but it did not go down well. By the evening of the day of the big announcement, the government’s own Education Recovery Commissioner, Sir Kevan Collins – the man appointed by the Prime Minister to oversee the education sector’s recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic – had resigned. His letter to Boris Johnson spelled out the reasons why he could not continue:

“I do not believe it will be possible to deliver a successful recovery without significantly greater support than the Government has, to date, indicated it intends to provide. I am concerned that the apparent savings offered by an incremental approach to recovery represent a false economy, as learning losses that are not addressed quickly are likely to compound.”

Sir Kevan Collins, in his letter of resignation to the Prime Minister

The headlines which followed told the story:

So why was the announcement of £1.4bn of extra funding for education so poorly received and so controversial? The main reason is that it was well-known that the plans put forward by Sir Kevan Collins were actually costed at ten times as much as the Treasury actually released. Reports suggest his plan would have cost £15bn. The Secretary of State for Education is reported to have asked the Treasury for £14bn. And the Treasury actually released a tenth of that, with funding ring-fenced to support tutoring and teacher development rather than many of the more ambitious (and expensive) proposals put forward.

So why was everyone so upset?

The government – and especially the Prime Minister – had been talking for weeks about prioritising education, talking about “levelling up” and suggesting it had a real ambition to do something radical. There had been much discussion in the media about extending the school day by half an hour, not just so that children could access tutoring in English and Maths, but also to provide opportunities for enrichment as laid out in Sir Kevan Collins’ letter:

“I believe our approach to recovery should also offer children opportunities to re-engage with sport, music, and the rich range of activities that define a great education. I proposed extending school time as a way to provide this breadth, as well as to ensure that additional academic support does not cause existing enrichment activities to be squeezed out.”

Sir Kevan Collins, from his resignation letter

Extending the school day is a complex, difficult thing to do. There would be a myriad of issues to work out and a mountain of obstacles to overcome. But it showed real ambition, a real sense of purpose, and it offered a genuine solution to the problem. With more time, we could do more – more performing arts, more sport, more outdoor education, more creativity, and more of the basics – without squeezing the stuff we already do.

At what cost?

Why would this plan cost so much? Well, an additional half an hour a day doesn’t sound like much – but there are over 24,000 schools in England. Additional time in each of those schools means additional staff would be needed in every single one. They would need to be heated, lit, powered and maintained for longer. Additional resources would be required for all those enrichment activities…in every school. The cost soon mounts up.

What Sir Kevan Collins showed the government was that a world class education system isn’t cheap. Other countries have realised this. In the Netherlands, the government has announced additional funding to support post-pandemic education recovery at around £2500 per child. In the USA, additional funding is running at £1600 per head. The graphic above shows that the UK government’s investment sits at just £50 per head, and even adding in previous education funding announcements only brings it up to £310 per head (as shown in the Financial Times.) As Geoff Barton said on Sky News: “what is it about those children in the Netherlands or the USA that makes them worth more?”

We know that the pandemic has cost the country countless billions already, not just in healthcare costs but lost earnings, furlough, collapsed businesses and welfare. There is no “magic money tree” and it is clear that the government cannot just make £15bn appear to invest in education on a whim. Money spent on education cannot be spent elsewhere – and there are many other worthy and important areas for the government to spending money on.

However, subsequent analysis showed that the education recovery funding set aside for England in the 2021-22 academic year amounts to £984 million – whereas the government spent £840 million on the “Eat Out to Help Out” scheme in a single month in August 2020. I am certainly in favour of supporting the hospitality industry, which has been crippled by the pandemic – our restaurants and pubs need and deserve our help. But can it possibly be right that an entire year’s worth of funding to support our national education recovery is only slightly more than a month’s worth of funding to support hospitality?

Unfortunately, investing in education is not politically effective. It doesn’t fit neatly into the election cycle. When you spend money on education, you don’t see the benefits for decades – usually long after the careers of most politicians have concluded. But not investing in education – as Sir Kevan pointed out – is a false economy. Investing in education is an investment in reducing social problems, increasing employability and earning potential, and improving social mobility for the future.

Of course, we will still do everything we can at Churchill to provide a world class education with what we have. We know that the work we do here will continue to have an impact, not just in the short term to resolve immediate issues, but in the long term as we continue to do all we can to inspire and enable young people to make a positive difference to themselves, to others, and to the society they will participate in. But, when I think about what we could be providing with additional funding…it feels like an opportunity missed.

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