In the latest instalment of the "I can outspend you" campaigning, Boris Johnson, Michael Gove and Matt Hancock have pledged to stump up more cash for schools.
Mr Johnson, the frontrunner to lead the Conservative Party, has pledged that every secondary school in England will get at least £5,000 per pupil. Mr Gove, the former education secretary who was first out of the blocks, has committed an extra £1 billion. Refusing to be outdone, Mr Hancock, the late-breaker, has now promised £3 billion for primary and secondary schools – twice as much spending on secondary schools as Mr Johnson. Mr Hancock stated that on education, he would be “bolder than Boris.”
Setting aside where this money is coming from (more borrowing, reprioritisation from other budgets, higher taxes?), or whether the amounts being used as a carrot for Tory votes will have a really significant impact on school budgets, detail over how best to allocate new funds is thin.
Will the money pledged to make schools fairer boost results for disadvantaged pupils? Maybe. But not unless it is applied in a targeted, evidenced-based way – and this campaign appears an evidence-free zone.
So what could they do? How about getting serious about attracting the best teachers to the poorest schools outside of London, where the attainment gap is much bigger?
Conservative school funding pledges
Research shows that schools with a higher proportion of disadvantaged students are less likely to have qualified teachers than schools with a more privileged intake. In poorer areas outside London, 17 per cent of physics teachers have a relevant degree – compared with 52 per cent in more affluent areas. Teacher vacancies are also considerably higher at primary and secondary schools in deprived areas of the country.
The government is toying with small-scale top-up payments of £2,000 for Stem teachers to move to disadvantaged areas. The pilot is backed by £10 million investment – a drop in the ocean compared with some of the figures put forward by Tory candidates.
Let’s be clear, an extra £2,000 would be a welcome salary increase – but is it enough to get high-quality teachers to up sticks and move to areas that have struggled to attract talent? I’m not convinced that less than £200 a month is much of an incentive to leave friends and family.
However, a substantial increase (£5,000? £10,000? Double salary?) might do the trick. If there’s cash to splash and candidates really want to move the needle, why not offer a big rise in teacher salaries in the very worst performing schools in rural and coastal areas?
How about investing serious cash in programmes that have been proven to improve mental health, behaviour and home-school relationships? NHS figures show that one in eight people under 19 in England has had a mental health disorder. Pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds are also more likely to suffer from mental health problems, impacting wellbeing and school performance.
A dedicated child and adolescent mental health services (Camhs) officer in schools experiencing high levels of mental health problems could provide welcome support both to pupils and teachers. Camhs officers could support pupils with a range of wellbeing and mental health issues, while helping teachers struggling to balance the day-to-day pressures they face. This would build on the slow-starting trailblazer pilot introduced by government.
Or what about focusing additional spend on early years provision, ensuring that more children are school-ready in the first place? Analysis suggests that nearly one in three Reception children are not considered school-ready – with almost half of poorer children starting school behind.
Ensuring nurseries are run by highly trained staff could help to close the early gap in social, literary and language skills. Recent research shows that 2,000 nurseries in the poorest areas do not have access to trained early years teachers. Investing in these areas could go a long way to ensuring that all children, regardless of background, begin school on more of a level footing.
As the Tory leadership candidates are looking to spend more on education in their attempts to get the keys to Number 10, schools should come with evidence-based shopping lists to help the most disadvantaged.
Dr Luke Heselwood is a senior researcher at Reform thinktank