When Sir Kevan Collins was appointed as education recovery commissioner, just four months ago, Boris Johnson proudly announced that he was “absolutely determined that no child will be left behind as a result of the pandemic”.
Education secretary Gavin Williamson announced that Sir Kevan was “a tremendous asset to those young people, their families and everyone working in education”.
It turns out, however, that perhaps some children will have to be left behind, because the government has decided that this tremendous asset isn’t worth making use of.
It must have been embarrassing to the Department for Education and the prime minister to have their key adviser resign on the day they made their big announcement, but the real loss is to the pupils and families who might have benefited from a proper investment in education.
Covid catch-up: Schools have to try to manage with less
Of course, for those of us in schools, this is nothing new. We’re well used to big announcements of money to be lavished upon us, only to find that the detail doesn’t quite match the grand declarations.
The problem is that every time these things happen, families – quite rightly – come to expect more, and schools and teachers have to try to manage with less.
Alongside the sneaky change in pupil premium costs, schools will now be trying to meet the cost of catch-up for the most disadvantaged pupils with very limited further resource. And it’s made all the more difficult by the disappointing experiences that too many colleagues have had with the National Tutoring Programme.
Why the obsession with this, incidentally? Schools and their leaders are already experts at appointing staff to support improving learning: it’s what we do. There are plenty of teachers and teaching assistants already known to schools who can carry out this work if schools are properly funded.
Instead, the channelling of money to agencies and outsourced providers of variable quality leaves headteachers with a dilemma: do you spend the limited funding you have available on subsidising expensive tuition that may or may not bring results, or try to keep things in-house without the benefits of the government money? Although, the task is made easier given that the subsidy will rapidly disappear.
Robbing Peter to pay Paul
The irony, of course, is that many schools will have had staff doing exactly this sort of work prior to the lockdowns, but in recent years have had to reduce staff numbers to make ends meet. At the same time, the work of staff still in schools has had to be redirected.
Inadequate funding for SEND means that schools are increasingly meeting the costs of higher needs from their existing budget. Adults who might previously have supported all pupils, or groups of pupils with lower levels of SEND, are now meeting the needs of statutory education, health and care plans, covering lunch duties, or even covering PPA time for class teachers.
Equally, funding from the pupil premium pot, which was once used to provide tuition, wide-ranging extracurricular activities or access to music, the arts and physical activity, is now instead meeting basic need and limited academic support.
Schools are already robbing Peter to Paul; it doesn’t help to see government only prepared to meet 10 per cent of the costs of recovery.
Which brings us back to Sir Kevan Collins’ resignation. He couldn’t have been clearer in setting out what he saw as his brief just a few weeks ago. He wanted to see schools extending their provision for volunteering, art, sport and drama – and, to my mind, most school leaders agree. I’d have been delighted to offer catch-up tuition, as well as a much broader extracurricular offering of clubs and activities.
Instead, we’ve got a feeble sum, with strings attached, which will be – in Sir Kevan’s words – “too narrow, too small and will be delivered too slowly”. And we don’t even know yet when we’ll get it.
Michael Tidd is headteacher at East Preston Junior School in West Sussex. He tweets @MichaelT1979