What does Sir Kevan's departure mean for education?

Sir Kevan Collins' catch-up plan would have given substance to the empty talk of levelling up, says Geoff Barton

Geoff Barton

Covid catch-up: What Sir Kevan Collins' departure means for schools

And so it goes on. The government’s disastrous handling of education during the pandemic has reached a new but predictable nadir.

First, an underwhelming package of catch-up measures is announced, with a fraction of the big funding figures that were reported to be swirling around in behind-the-scenes discussions. While the commitment to funding more teacher development is certainly welcome, the overall impression is of pots of money that seem piecemeal and overcomplicated, and only serve to reinforce the sense of a managerial approach to education.

Next, the education recovery commissioner Sir Kevan Collins resigns in protest, warning the prime minister that without a comprehensive and urgent response to the disruption caused by the pandemic, we risk failing hundreds of thousands of pupils. 

Presumably, the government hoped to limit the damage of a lacklustre recovery plan by sliding it out during half-term week, rather than the big and brassy announcement we might have been expecting next week. 

If that was the strategy – tucking disappointment away in the middle of the holiday – it has backfired spectacularly. 

Covid catch-up: What has been lost with Sir Kevan Collins' resignation?

And yet you get the impression that the prime minister himself is unruffled – just another week, just another storm – uttering vague (and irrelevant) soundbites about teacher salaries and appearing to nod to a distant horizon where, one day, there will be more money “coming down the track”. None of it inspires confidence. 

Indeed, it reminds me of something said by US statesman Henry Kissinger: “One of the greatest dangers to democracy is the growing gap between those who can win elections and those who can run the state.” 

Quite. Now of all times, we need people who can run the state with a smattering of competence.

So, where does this leave us? It’s instructive to have a look at what Sir Kevan Collins was recommending – and what has therefore been potentially lost. 

There’s been much focus on the idea of extending the school day, which – whatever your view – at least showed a sense of ambition. My view: with sufficient resources to avoid it adding to leader and teacher workload, plus a focus on the enrichment we value for our own children, this could have been the game-changer in beginning to provide opportunities, including one-to-one tuition, for children who need them most.

There’s been less coverage about other elements of the plan. According to The Times, these included:

  • Funding 100 hours’ extra teaching a year for sixth formers.
  • Widening the number of disadvantaged children eligible for childcare or early years education.
  • Increasing pupil funding for early years and disadvantaged sixth-formers.
  • Hiring more highly qualified early years practitioners.

None of this is headline-grabbing stuff, but it’s really significant nonetheless. We know that by the time disadvantaged children are in their Reception year, they are already 4.6 months of learning behind their peers. The gap then widens to 18.1 months by the time they finish their GCSEs.

So, all logic would suggest that there is a huge gain to be made in investing heavily in early years education to level the playing field at the start of schooling, and thereby giving these children a better foundation for their ongoing learning. Early investment saves later expense.

And, at the other end of the age range, we know also that 16-19 education is terribly underfunded, and has been so for many years. 

The Institute for Fiscal Studies found that funding per student in further education and sixth-form colleges fell by 12 per cent in real terms between 2010-11 and 2019-20, while funding per student in school sixth forms fell by 23 per cent.

Again, there’s an overwhelming logic in channelling more funding into this sector to boost student attainment just at the time that these young people are studying for qualifications that will influence their future destinations and life chances.

Giving substance to rhetoric about levelling up

Together with a focus on providing more support and enrichment to pupils in schools, the proposals for early years and for 16-19 education add up to a plan that would not only boost learning in the wake of the pandemic but – if taken forward – provide a longer-term template to reduce the attainment gap and address long-term disadvantage.

In other words, this plan finally puts some substance into the prime minister’s straining rhetoric about levelling up. It is a crying shame that he has not recognised the opportunity being handed to him on a plate.

More worrying still is that the Treasury’s apparent victory in blocking the plan and tightening the purse strings may be the shape of things to come. It suggests that the priority for the future will be repairing the damage to government finances caused by the pandemic – and that education will slip further down the agenda.

I really hope I am wrong about this, and that the prime minister will step up on behalf of the nation’s children and young people. But it has truly been a bleak week. 

So now is an important moment for all those with an interest in education – on all sides of the political divide – to work together to make the case for an education plan that has the sense of scale, ambition, and funding that is so desperately needed. 

We have to persuade the government that this is not a cost but an investment – in the lives of children and young people, and in the future prosperity of the country. It is both a moral and economic necessity.

Or, as Sir Kevan put it this morning: “The pandemic has affected all pupils, but hit disadvantaged children hardest. A decade’s progress to narrow the attainment gap between disadvantaged children and their peers is estimated to have been reversed.

“The recovery approach we take will reveal our commitment to a generation of children. After the hardest of years, a comprehensive recovery plan — adequately funded and sustained over multiple years — would rebuild a stronger and fairer system. A half-hearted approach risks failing hundreds of thousands of pupils.”

It’s that kind of ambition for the nation’s children, through a lifetime of public service, that saw Sir Kevan appointed to the post. He will be missed.

But as a legacy, we cannot afford to let this opportunity for transformation of life chances slip through our fingers. And, more importantly, neither can the young people we serve.

Geoff Barton is general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders

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