Catch-up funding is great - but it's chaos again

ASCL general secretary Geoff Barton says the government's funding announcement is welcome - but questions abound, from a lack of 16-19 provision, to why unions expertise is being ignored

Geoff Barton

Coronavirus: The government needs a plan B for reopening schools in September, says ASCL leader Geoff Barton

In the absence of a clear governmental plan for bringing more children and young people back into school or college, there’s been a veritable cavalry of people lining up to ride to the rescue.

All of these have been well-meaning – university students, retired teachers, volunteers, sports coaches, private tutors – all ready apparently to reboot the nation’s education system.

That’s why we are pleased to welcome today’s announcement by the government for two reasons.

First, amid so much swirling rhetoric about standards, tuition and catch up, it puts its money where its mouth is – a commitment of £1bn to improve the life chances of our most disadvantaged pupils.

And then there’s the second reason – that against no-doubt pressure to pull a quick-fix media-friendly rabbit from the educational hat – the secretary of state has been able to announce something rooted in evidence.

Teachers must guide catch-up plans

Because – if we’re serious about helping the disadvantaged – then what they need as a starting-point is a trusted adult, their teacher, to evaluate where they are and plan for where they go next.

This is a core skill of any teacher. And without this initial assessment of a child’s learning needs, any deployment of tutors and coaches would be a squandered resource.

The teacher needs to be at the heart of this process of national renewal. And the government signalled today that it understands this principle.

So, let’s be clear from the outset. The recovery package announced today by the government to help children catch up with learning time lost as a result of the coronavirus emergency is a significant and welcome investment.

Nothing that follows is, therefore, intended to be in any way mealy-mouthed.

We are just raising the questions that you would expect us to raise as a professional association that represents school and college leaders and works on behalf of children and young people.

Greater collaboration would have helped

Now, cards-on-the-table time. 

We are frustrated that the details of this important announcement could not shared with us ahead of its release.

That isn’t us being precious and demanding to be in the know. It is because we think that navigating through this crisis should be a collaborative effort between the government and the teaching profession.

We could have headed off some of the questions and snarkiness that has marked today’s announcement and made the focus precisely what it should have been – the celebration of a major investment in the nation’s future.

Money well allocated?

The catch-up programme falls into two parts. There is £350 million for a national tutoring programme (NTP). And then there is another £650 million to be shared across state primary and secondary schools to fund their own catch-up interventions.

The NTP is aimed at disadvantaged pupils, and involves two strands: first, subsidised tuition sessions provided by an approved list of NTP partners and bought in by schools; second, NTP coaches – "subsidised coaches based in, and employed by, schools" to provide intensive and frequent support to pupils.

The benefits of this are that there is good evidence for the benefit of small groups and one-to-one tuition, and this scheme could provide a cost-effective method of buying in provision that might, otherwise, be prohibitively expensive.

But there are also legitimate questions to be asked. It seems like a very complex and bureaucratic system to deliver this provision.

Could the money be better spent by simply providing it to schools in the first place to fund their own interventions, which might for example, deploy their own staff of trained teachers to provide extra small-group tuition?

And given that school funding has been very uneven for many years, some schools will have less capacity to buy in this tutoring service even at a subsidised rate.

Overlooking older students

The other element of the package, the £650 million, seems much more straightforward. Unfortunately, however, there does not appear to be any money for early years or 16-19 provision.

These vital sectors were originally included in an early iteration of the announcement planned today, but were removed in a "corrected" version.

It doesn’t need me to point out the importance of early years and 16-19 education, and the fact that they are no longer included is a significant omission.

The announcement also promises that it will be for headteachers to decide how the money is spent, but then in the next breath says the government expects this to be spent on small-group tuition for whoever needs it. This is obviously a contradiction.

Leaders know best

Our view is very firmly that leaders should be able to decide on how to use catch-up money from a range of evidence-based interventions. That is because they know their pupils the best, and they are experts at identifying learning needs.

We cannot help thinking that, if professional associations had been involved in the process earlier on, we would have been able to advise and, at the very least, clarify some of these issues. We know that it is a democratically elected government with the right to decide, but it is surely just common sense to work together.

The problem here is not just for us, and our members, in now having to unpick exactly what all this means, and await the raft of guidance that will inevitably follow.

Chaos, still

It is also one for the government whose much-anticipated catch-up announcement, which is in many ways a really positive step forward, has once again landed somewhat chaotically.

In the meantime, there’s so much that hasn’t been done. There is no government plan for bringing back pupils in September, or even a timetable of when decisions will be made. There is no plan for next year’s exams or assessment, which are crucial elements in planning out next year’s provision.

There is no sense of how the current government guidance, which restricts class sizes to no more than 15, may evolve over the coming weeks. There is no plan for rotas or extra classroom space or more teachers. We are clueless how the Year 10 and 12 students who started some face-to-face learning this week will be assessed in their examinations next summer.

There is, it seems, no plan for anything.

We must work together

All we are asking is to join together – the profession and the government – to hammer this out.

Let’s do the detail, stop worrying about eye-catching announcements, sense-check communication plans, and, please, rise above any infuriating, distracting political manoeuvring between various government departments.

Because the children of this country deserve better than this. They deserve a strategy. They deserve clarity. And they deserve some reassurance about when their entitlement to normal education may resume and quite what it may look like.

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Geoff Barton

Geoff Barton

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

Find me on Twitter @RealGeoffBarton

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