The appointment of Gavin Williamson as education secretary is likely to have generated surprise among many in education circles. Barely a day has passed, and there is already speculation over what we can expect from the new minister. In all likelihood, it may be a number of weeks, however, before we truly grasp how Williamson might seek to make his mark at the Department for Education.
But, if we treat the words of his boss at face value, we can offer some advice. Earlier this week, Boris Johnson committed to “invest in our schools and close the opportunity gap in our country”.
This included a pledge to invest a further £4.6 billion in the schools budget by 2020 to “level up per-pupil funding in primary and secondary schools”.
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While additional funding for schools will always be welcomed, it needs to be more than just a crude “levelling up”. I worked for many years on school funding and am acutely aware of the disparities that emerged over recent decades across different areas of the country. But levelling up implies that funding should be equal, despite the fact that the circumstances and opportunities children have are not.
The fact is that those circumstances still play a significant role in a child’s achievement. By the time they leave secondary school, disadvantaged pupils are around a year and a half behind their more affluent peers. In some parts of the country, particularly in areas in the North East, that gap is around two years. In addition, our own research found that in the most disadvantaged areas outside London, only 20 per cent of maths teachers and 17 per cent of physics teachers held a degree relevant to their subject.
It is pupils in these areas who need the greatest support. While there has been a squeeze on school funding in recent years, the scale of cuts to early intervention services has been much greater. Services that typically sought to support disadvantaged families, including Sure Start and youth services, will have been cut by 20 per cent per head between 2009-10 and 2019-20.
In addition, we are seeing a rising number of children with special educational needs but without sufficient funding to support those needs. Increasingly, we are hearing of families home-schooling their children or taking legal action against the local authority whose job it is to support them.
And it’s not just schools that need additional support. Our recent research into 16-19 education found that sixth forms and colleges have suffered a 16 per cent cut in real terms since 2010-11 – double the 8 per cent cut faced by schools. This phase of funding has never been a political priority but, ahead of the spending review, Williamson has a real opportunity here to change that and help to restore some of the financial stability to this sector.
If Williamson wants to be yet more transformative, he would also prioritise investment in the early years. Around 40 per cent of the disadvantage gap at age 16 is already present at age 5, so it is a no-brainer that if politicians are serious about closing that gap, they need to look closely at this important phase. The Conservative government’s track record on this in recent years has been generally poor. The additional 15 hours of free early years provision to working families introduced in 2017 was a regressive move and overlooked the developmental needs of children from poorer families.
So, more funding is to be welcomed. But any government serious about social mobility and equality of opportunity needs to take heed of the evidence about where and how to spend that money.
Natalie Perera is executive director and head of research, Education Policy Institute