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We need to level up the education playing field

4 min read

Children in many of the worst-affected areas have faced a triple whammy of long-term deprivation, digital poverty and lost learning days. More investment in education catch up is essential, it must be an economic priority.

Levelling up begins and ends with what happens in the early years and in education. Talent may be everywhere, but opportunity is not – and if levelling up is to mean anything, it must ensure that children across the country have access to the same life chances, no matter what their background or where they grow up.

This is a serious economic argument, one that feels especially pertinent following the government’s announcement of a further 1.4bn catch-up funding this week and the ongoing debate over whether more education recovery funding is needed or likely to be made available. Children need support to catch up on the weeks of learning they have lost, but many – especially disadvantaged children - also need support to get ahead. That’s why more investment in education catch up is essential, and why it must be seen as an economic priority by Whitehall.

When it comes to decisions about regenerating our communities attention has focused too often on infrastructure projects such as roads, bridges and now freeports, while funding for education falls low down the list of priorities. It’s a huge oversight.

We can’t put education recovery on pause while we work out if there’s any spare money

Renowned economist and vice-chair of the Northern Powerhouse Partnership, Lord Jim O’Neill, has argued for years that investment in education and skills is critical to closing the productivity gap which lies at the heart of the North-South divide. Shiny new buildings to make a high street look better are all well and good – but unless you have a capable, skilled workforce across the whole country, we can forget about rebalancing the economy and levelling up.

Money spent on education is never wasted – it’s an investment in our future. It’s an investment in the next generation of doctors, nurses, teachers and factory workers. 

It’s why the US is spending £1,600 per pupil to repair some of the damage done in the past year. In the Netherlands the number is even higher at £2,500 per pupil. Meanwhile, children here in England get just £50 from the most recent batch of funding. Let’s be clear – a further £1.4bn funding for tutoring support is welcome and will be put to good use, but it also has its limitations.

It’s important to be honest about the scale of the challenge children face in this country as a result of the pandemic. Children in England have missed on average more than 100 days of school. This number is even higher in many parts of the North, where transmission rates meant even more disruption to learning. It is estimated that 90,000 children may begin secondary school this year unable to read and write properly. A further 200,000 children are experiencing poor mental health. Targeted academic catch up is essential, but children also need to be able and feel supported to learn.

We need to invest in wellbeing and pastoral care like Sheffield Hallam’s Grow mentoring being rolled out across Barnsley, or Oasis Academies’ Community Hubs which support children’s emotional and social needs.  We also need to open up access to extra-curricular activities including sports, music and the arts to enrich and extend children’s learning – opportunities to learn more broadly and build confidence and skills.

Recovery is also only part of the job. The disadvantaged who have fallen furthest behind during the pandemic were already being left behind. Children in many of the worst-affected areas have faced a triple whammy of long-term deprivation, digital poverty and lost learning days.  

As well as the necessity of catch up, there is also an opportunity to truly build back better, with a plan that tackles both the damage from the past year, as well as the deep-rooted problems that have persisted in our schools for decades.

As the now former Education Recovery Commissioner, Sir Kevan Collins outlined this week, we need to think big and long-term, planning for the next three years at least.  The estimated £15bn he is thought to have asked for, might seem a lot, but the gains would be huge. The furlough scheme alone has cost more than £6bn per month, yet we all understand it was money well spent.  The same, I believe, would be the case for a bold education recovery programme.

We can’t put education recovery on pause while we work out if there’s any spare money and we can’t wait until the spending review in the autumn to put a price on our children’s futures.


Anne Longfield is the former Children's Commissioner for England.

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