The government’s schools white paper has come and gone without troubling the front pages or the consciousness of pretty much anyone not working in education. Those within the sector are unanimously underwhelmed, there is nothing in there that has caused great upset or consternation, but equally nothing that feels exciting or new.
The most important chapter, on academies reform, is a useful start in tidying up the problems outlined in my IfG report published in February, though it leaves many details to be decided. But the rest is a series of re-announcements, helpful but low-key tweaks, and gimmicks.
In part this is explained by a lack of funding. Education fared less well in the spending review than other areas like health and defence spending. By focusing money elsewhere, the government chose to leave schools in a position where, even by 2024/25, their real terms funding per pupil will barely be back to where it was in 2010/11. This constrained funding was always going to make significant reform much harder.
But beyond the financial constraints there is a lack of narrative or vision, which means the proposed changes feel like a list rather than a plan. This wasn’t always the case. Under the Coalition the focus was very much on disadvantage, which suited both the Lib Dems and Michael Gove’s desire to tackle low expectations for those in poverty. And, while we can’t attribute the effect to any specific policy, the gap between rich and poor did start shrinking, and continued to do so, albeit in small increments, up to 2018.
In more recent years, though, there has been far less focus on this, without replacing it with any alternative narrative, creating a void that this most recent White Paper failed to fill.
The shift away from a focus on the disadvantage gap started under Theresa May. Her advisers felt strongly that the large chunk of the population who are neither on benefits nor rich felt ignored by constant references to poverty. At the same time the introduction of the overall and “two-child” benefits caps by George Osborne, in the run-up to the EU referendum, meant that we started to see an increase in child poverty for the first time since the 1990s.
We now have over half a million more children in poverty than we did then, and this is set to increase further due to the current high levels of inflation, which are well above the increase in benefits. It is hard to base your education narrative around poverty when other policies pursued by your government are so explicitly making the problem worse. Having a low income doesn’t mean schools shouldn’t have high expectations for a pupil but it is unquestionably harder to learn if you are cold, hungry, crammed into a room with multiple family members, and without access to books or IT equipment at home.
Then in the last few years we have seen the disadvantage gap start widening again thanks, in particular, to covid. A report released by the Education Policy Institute this week shows that young people, at the end of last term, were still behind where pre-pandemic cohorts were at the same point. And it is much worse for children from low income families. For instance, disadvantaged secondary school pupils were on average 3.5 months behind in reading, compared to two months for non-disadvantaged pupils – a gap that has widened since the summer term.
When covid was dominating the news last year there was a brief flurry of concern about learning loss, which culminated in Sir Kevan Collins being asked to come up with recommendations which where then rejected at the behest of Rishi Sunak. But since then there has been a remarkable lack of interest or urgency in dealing with the educational impact of the pandemic. The one thing the government has done – a National Tutoring Programme – has struggled badly due to a disastrous decision to award the contract to a commercial organisation, Randstad, who had no idea what they were doing. The Randstad contract was, after much been criticism, cancelled this week.
There was a window here to restore a narrative about helping those who need it most and to engage schools and communities in a mission based around covid recovery. It could have emphasised not just getting back to where we were in 2019 but going further and tackling entrenched inequality. It could have been one of the driving goals of “levelling up” (the education “mission” in the Levelling Up White Paper is barely mentioned in this one – and there’s no indication of how it could be achieved).
But all of that would require a sense of strategic purpose that seems largely lacking across government at the moment; leaving the Treasury fixation with spending control as the basis for decision making. So instead we have technocratic tweaks and a generation who are being left behind.