Beyond the Covid catch-up for children, our education system needs a long-term plan
As well as the immediate solutions, long term ambitions like boosting family hubs, re-thinking A-levels, and building further education could help our children recover from the challenges of the pandemic
The Four Horsemen of the Education Apocalypse are galloping towards our children. Lost learning, mental health crises, safeguarding hazards – and now a potential loss in lifetime earnings of £40,000, as the IFS reported only recently.
It isn’t just enough to campaign for schools to open sooner rather than later. What is needed is a national long-term plan for education, setting out how the government is going to address the widened attainment gap, as well as the damage to children’s wellbeing and their life chances on the jobs ladder of opportunity.
First, we need to ensure the efficient rollout of the catch-up programme. As schools reopen, every child should be assessed as to how much learning they have lost. The programme could be targeted much more to help disadvantaged pupils and disadvantaged schools. Support must be available both online and offline – and include a mental health counsellor in every school. The additional £300m announced by the Prime Minister recently means that schools will receive a package of £1.3bn. That money must be ringfenced for catch-up.
Second, the government should look at extending the school day. This does not mean compelling teachers to work longer hours – but it could mean using the catch-up fund to bring civil society, social enterprise and tutoring organisations, into schools to offer the extra-curricular activities, academic teaching and wellbeing support. Sports clubs will be all the more important given students have been cooped up over the last year.
Third, we need to get to the root of child food insecurity. Hunger affects a child’s concentration, readiness to learn, behaviour, punctuality and attainment. The extra £220m announced for the Holiday Activities and Food programme could be something special. Combined with support from local authorities, it could mean that in the major holidays, children can enjoy sports, arts and other activities, receive support with learning and wellbeing, and get a free nutritious meal at the same time.
Of the money ringfenced for the Treasury by the Soft Drinks Levy (some £340m), half should continue to be directed to physical education, with the other half going towards extending Magic Breakfast’s National School Breakfast programme. Pupils in schools with a breakfast club made an additional two months academic progress over the course of a year and a study from the University of Leeds found that children who ate breakfast regularly achieved an average of two GCSEs higher than those who rarely ate breakfast.
The government should also consider a debate on the future of A-Levels, possibly replacing them with a wider baccalaureate that encompasses vocational, technical and academic education
But these are immediate solutions. A long-term plan would recognise the need for early intervention and support for early-years providers. It would promote family hubs across the country – bringing together everything from childcare, healthcare and social services, skills training and careers advice for parents.
Moreover, if we can really boost the prestige of further education so that it is regarded as having equal status to traditional academic routes, it could transform the life chances of so many young people. The Lifetime Skills Guarantee is hugely welcome – offering flexible finance and free Level 3 courses to adults will allow disadvantaged people to climb the skills ladder of opportunity, whatever their age.
The government should also consider a debate on the future of A-Levels, possibly replacing them with a wider baccalaureate that encompasses vocational, technical and academic education, as more than one million students across 146 countries already do.
In the past, the mantra has been: “education, education, education” and “university, university, university”. Now, our focus must be on: “catch-up, catch-up, catch-up” and “skills, skills, skills”. That way, we can ensure that the corona cohort of children will have the opportunities in life that they have every right to have.
Robert Halfon is Conservative MP for Harlow and chair of the Education Select Committee