Is Covid catch-up just blustery rhetoric?

The promise of an 'ambitious and long-term' catch-up plan means nothing without proper funding, says Geoff Barton

Geoff Barton

Is the Covid catch-up plan for schools just blustery rhetoric?

Whether we call it educational “recovery” or “catch up”, this is surely a time for boldness and ambition in which we, the older generation, act on behalf of the younger generation. 

We really can’t just default to our education system as it was. We have to make it better, so that it works for all children and young people, and especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds.

As today’s ground-breaking report by the Education Policy Institute puts it: “Recovering from the crisis of the last year should be viewed as an opportunity to be more ambitious about the future.”

And in that word “ambitious” lies the problem. Because, as the pandemic recedes, it seems that the government has lost interest in education. Instead, it has moved on to such weighty matters as, err, repealing the fixed-term Parliament act and introducing voter ID cards.

Covid catch-up plans: Ambitious, long-term and properly funded?

This week’s Queen’s Speech had little to say of substance on the subject of our young people’s future, other than a rehashed announcement about a “Lifetime Skills Guarantee”. This might have the right intention – the opportunity for people to train and retrain at any stage of their lives – but, in truth, it is littered with caveats.

Then there’s the bill to protect free speech in universities, which seems to be a legislative hammer to crack a very small nut, given that there doesn’t actually seem to be a widespread problem.

The Queen’s Speech did, however, promise that “the education recovery plan will contain a package of ambitious and long-term measures to make sure pupils have the chance to make up their learning over the course of this Parliament”. 

So, no pressure then. Whether there will actually be sufficient funding from the Treasury to provide a package of “ambitious and long-term measures” is another matter, and this could be the point at which the rhetoric and the reality part company, no matter how brilliantly the recovery commissioner, Sir Kevan Collins, executes his brief.

There were worrying signs of the shape of things to come in an article in iNews, which reported that the government is lining up Dutch human-resources conglomerate Randstad to run the National Tutoring Programme. 

As Labour’s Kate Green asked of the education secretary in the House of Commons: “Can he tell the House what expertise in education, teaching and learning they will bring? In fact, can he tell us why they were able to win this tender at all? Was it because his department decided to lower the quality of provision required in order to cut corners on price?”

They’re good questions. And, from where I sit, it will seem very strange to schools, colleges and taxpayers if a tuition programme for children in state-funded schools in England ends up being provided not by the teachers in those schools, but by a company based in the Netherlands. Not that I have anything against the Netherlands, but you get the point.

Turning government rhetoric into reality

Meanwhile, the Education Policy Institute hasn’t just challenged the government to show ambition. It has costed it, setting out what a really solid education recovery plan would cost. And the price tag? Around £13.5 billion over three years. 

Helpfully, the EPI provided an itemised shopping list of evidence-based initiatives that will make an impact. It looks like the sort of “ambitious and long-term” plan that would turn government rhetoric into reality.

Once again, the real ambition for children and young people seems to come from organisations beyond the government itself. Whether the Treasury is willing to contemplate the sort of sums involved is another matter. 

We have to say that the signs are not good, given the government’s penny-pinching record on failing to provide proper financial support to schools and colleges over Covid-associated costs, and its refusal to provide reimbursement for its ridiculous decision to change the rules on pupil-premium allocations, which caused many schools to lose out on funding.

All of which leaves Sir Kevan Collins with a big task: how to come up with a robust plan for education recovery that meets the high expectations of many voices in the education sector and beyond, lives up to the billing given it by the government, and does all of this within the amount of money that can be wrung out of the Treasury. 

Depending on your mindset, you could see that either as a tough gig or a brilliant opportunity to give the government a vision for education that is woefully lacking at the moment.

The prime minister could, of course, help out Sir Kevan here, and do the right thing for schools, colleges and pupils. He could simply insist that the Treasury stumps up the money needed for a properly resourced education recovery and resilience programme. 

In doing so, he would move that increasingly tiresome mantra about “levelling up” from blustery rhetoric into much-needed reality. 

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

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