Today’s report by the Education Policy Institute makes for alarming reading. But for anyone who works with the best interests of children and young people at heart, it doesn’t tell us anything that we don’t already know.
Despite the improving standards in schools and two decades of sustained effort, narrowing the gap between richer and poorer students is taking too long.
As the EPI have identified in their very detailed report, if we carry on at this pace, we will lose at least a further three generations before equality of outcomes is realised through our education system. We just can’t allow that to happen.
Rightly, schools are at the centre of the efforts that we make to narrow the gap. But it would be wrong to expect schools to solve the problem on their own. The issues that underpin inequality reach far beyond the school gates and exist throughout the communities that schools serve.
Cuts to local authority budgets have greatly reduced the sources of support for families on low incomes. Some of the areas where it is hardest to be socially mobile have suffered from decades of under-investment and shrinking opportunities for well-paid and highly skilled work. If we’re serious about improving equality in the UK we’ve got to look at all these factors. Schools can’t do it alone.
It would also be entirely wrong to expect schools to make a difference if they are struggling for money themselves.
Recently, owing to sustained pressure from parents and school staff, the Department for Education diverted a further £1.3billion from its overall budget into schools themselves.
But this money will not arrive before April next year, so it comes too late to reverse the cuts to staff and support services that schools have already made for this academic year. Vital interventions that could improve equality are already disappearing.
The school funding picture is so severe that whilst the £1.3bn is welcome it is considerably less than the additional £2 billion a year that we need to reverse the real terms cuts that have hit schools since 2015. The independent Institute for Fiscal Studies’ analysis is that the government’s offer represents a real-terms freeze on school budgets for the next two years.
At last month’s Sutton Trust twentieth anniversary event, education secretary Justine Greening gave a heartfelt speech, illustrating a depth of understanding of the issues and a very open desire to put things right. Clearly, the secretary of state has been listening to us, but what’s also clear is that Treasury hasn’t.
It’s time for them to open their coffers, too. Their reluctance will undermine any plans the government has to make a fairer society.
We’re not without hope, though. As I said, those at the coal face know what the problems are and have the desire to make a difference.
Primary and secondary schools in and around London have been able to improve outcomes for disadvantaged students that buck the national trend. Additional investment to and focus on projects like the London Challenge appear to have had an impact.
We should be looking for ways to spread this to areas of the country that still need support.
Another area of focus must be recruitment. Fortunately, we’ve stopped looking for magic bullets in education but you can’t deny that a highly skilled and well-motivated team of teachers is essential if you’re going to stand a realistic chance of improving equality for pupils.
Schools in the areas highlighted in the EPI report have always struggled to attract teachers. That is why the NAHT headteachers' union believes there should be a national strategy for teacher recruitment that recognises teachers as high-status professionals and guarantees enough teachers for every school.
The alarm bells are ringing. The DfE seems to be paying attention. Now it’s time for the Treasury to wake up too.
Paul Whiteman is general secretary designate of the NAHT heads' union. He tweets @PaulWhiteman6