'Never have schools felt so alone'

Schools have all the stress of teacher-assessed grades - and they haven't got decent catch-up funding, says David James

David James

'Schools have GCSE and A-level pressure and no proper Covid catch-up funding'

For many teachers, the new half-term begins with a feeling of abandonment and dread

There has been little respite from the gloom that has deepened ever since examinations were cancelled in January. But last week brought a new low, with the education recovery commissioner, Sir Kevan Collins, resigning after the prime minister refused to back his plan to help children catch up. 

The inadequate response from the Treasury confirmed just how important schools are to this government. 

Never have schools felt so alone: bereft of the financial aid they need, unsupported by the examination boards and Ofqual, it feels like we are left to cope with a complex set of problems, none of them of our making, but all of them growing and likely to get worse. 

GCSEs and A levels: Schools in the firing line over teacher-assessed grades

The sense of dread comes from a feeling that, when the GCSE and A-level results are published in August, we will not only be left explaining why grade inflation is so high (answer: there was no algorithm), but – perhaps paradoxically – we will also have to deal with a huge number of appeals from disgruntled parents, who will be blaming teachers for their children’s disappointing grades. 

Going on past events, it is unlikely that either Ofqual or the Department for Education will step in to protect schools.

The news agenda will move on, but the challenges that schools face remain stubbornly embedded in every working day. Sir Kevan’s plans were an ambitious way forward, and although they would have taken time and come at a considerable initial cost, they provided a vision that not only would have provided school leaders with additional resources but – crucially – would also have emphasised that essential element of trust in the work that schools are doing. 

And the work is essential. We know that children falling behind in their studies will result in a significant long-term impact on the country’s economy, as well as the NHS and social services – as well as causing immeasurable mental health problems

Anyone working in schools today is already seeing, daily, a rise in challenging and anti-social behaviour, worrying gaps in basic skills, low self-esteem, a lack of motivation, an inability to focus, and many other problems which, although there before the pandemic, have clearly been exacerbated. 

The demands being made of schools by parents continue to rise, desperate as they are to see their children’s needs catered for. And linked to these are the concomitant issues of teacher burnout and staff leaving the profession.

Covid catch-up: The impact of an extended school day

A longer school day, which was a key proposal put forward by Sir Kevan, would have gone some way to allowing children to catch up. But as soon as this was raised, dissenting voices, including the chancellor himself, argued that there was no evidence that additional lessons help children learn. 

They are wrong: there is solid evidence that extending the school day can raise attainment. The Education Endowment Foundation’s work in this area shows that, on average, pupils make two additional months’ progress per year from targeted before- and after-school programmes. 

For such initiatives to work, parents and staff have to support them. Again, recent research (this time by the Centre for Policy Studies) suggests that parents very much do support extending the school day to allow their children to catch up with their studies. Understandably, some teachers will have refused to work longer hours, but others will have welcomed the additional money, and the opportunity to help the children they know so well. The tragedy is that the chance was never given. 

Learning is often slow and incremental: without the foundational knowledge so vital to making expected progress at each key stage, some children will never catch up, and those from disadvantaged backgrounds will fall behind even more

And for every child this happens to comes a whole host of attendant issues that society has to deal with. The £15 billion asked for by Sir Kevan would not have been a magic bullet, killing off all ills in one go, but it would have started to arrest – and then reverse – the issues he was charged with providing answers to. 

It is very difficult to think of a better way of spending money than putting it into schools. And in investing in academic progress, we not only give young people better options in the future but also allow them to be more fulfilled, more aware of themselves, of each other, of the opportunities that knowledge can reveal. 

That may not show up on an Excel spreadsheet in the Treasury, but it does in the countless interior lives of every young person. 

It is a false dichotomy to try to distinguish emotional wellbeing from academic achievement: they are inseparable. The one feeds, or starves, the other. More than ever we need the imagination, and the generosity of money and spirit, to give our young people the futures they deserve. 

For those affluent adults to deny them this is shameful. For parents, teachers and students, this is not worth £15 billion: it is a figure beyond value, and is priceless. 

David James is deputy head of an independent school in London. He tweets as @drdavidajames

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