Our children’s futures are a second-order concern for this Tory government
In contrast to the government’s damp squib, we have proposed an ambitious Children’s Recovery Plan which presents a roadmap for all children to play, learn and develop as we exit the pandemic.
It isn’t radical to identify education as one of the largest determinants of a child’s success in life. Some two and a half thousand years ago, the philosophers of Ancient Greece recognised it just so. In Book IV of his “Republic”, for example, Plato states that “the direction in which education starts a person will determine his future life”. Given the events of the last two days, Boris Johnson would be well-advised to take a refresher course on the classical studies of his university years.
As teachers, pupils and commentators across the political spectrum have noted, the effects of Covid-19 have fallen particularly hardly on school-age children. Locked out of schools for months on end, children all over the country have been forced to study in cramped home environments, with competing pressures on their time and often limited computer equipment. Some 850 million days of in-person school were lost to Covid by February this year, whilst older children have also faced the stress of not knowing how they will be assessed.
None of this has been aided by haphazard and inconsistent decision-making by central government. With Gavin Williamson at the helm, the Department for Education have u-turned on almost every policy under the sun – from free school meals over the summer, to exams for 2021.
Meanwhile, the longer-term challenges facing schools have gone unaddressed, with a recent report from the Education Policy Institute finding that it would take 500 years to close the attainment gap between richer and poorer pupils based on pre-Covid trends. This will hardly be helped by stealth cuts to pupil premium funding, with 119,000 children estimated to miss out on support worth over £130 million.
A good education system should match the ambition that young people have for themselves
The government let pupils down before and during the pandemic. That makes the need to support pupils properly when exiting the pandemic all the more important. In appointing Sir Kevan Collins, a widely respected figure, to lead a review into education recovery, it seemed to the outside world that they had recognised this fact – and recognised the insufficiency of their previous recovery plans, which have resulted in less than 2% of children receiving tutoring and which amounted to just 43p per child per day.
Yet the events of the past two days have sadly confirmed what we already knew – that for this Tory government, our children’s futures are a second-order concern. Instead of acting on Collins’ recommendation for an ambitious £15 billion recovery package, Boris Johnson and Rishi Sunak offered just a tenth of what is needed. That’s £50 per pupil per year, compared to £1,600 in the U.S. and £2,500 in the Netherlands. Perhaps the government thinks state-educated British kids are 32 times less valuable than their American counterparts – we in the Labour Party do not.
Beyond tutoring and academic recovery, the Conservatives’ plans feature no support for extracurricular activities and social development. This comes despite the fact that parents report their children’s wellbeing and social development to be their top concern post-pandemic (56 per cent of parents in an Ipsos Mori poll).
A good education system should match the ambition that young people have for themselves. That is precisely what is needed in our recovery from Covid, and that is what Labour would do. In contrast to the government’s damp squib, we have proposed an ambitious Children’s Recovery Plan which presents a roadmap for all children to play, learn and develop as we exit the pandemic.
Matching Collins’ recommended investment of £15 billion, Labour’s plan would deliver Breakfast clubs and new activities for every child, with extracurricular activities from sport to book clubs. Quality mental health support in every school, giving every child the support they need. Small group tutoring for all who need, not just the 1%. Continued development for teachers, including training on the latest knowledge and techniques to deliver for pupils. An Education Recovery Premium to support every child to reach their potential. Ensuring no children goes hungry by extending free school meals over the holidays.
‘Levelling up’ isn’t just about bricks – it’s about people too, including our kids. Labour has the plans and the will to improve our schools for every child, regardless of their wealth.
Now it’s time for the government to deliver, or move out of the way for a party who can.
Peter Kyle is the Labour MP for Hove and shadow minister for schools.