Politics

If catch-up training is the Prime Minister’s “legacy” of the pandemic, the place is the urgency to fund it?

Maybe it’s because Boris Johnson’s kids are either too old or too young to go to school. Maybe it’s because on his July 19th Freedom Day, he’s more focused on rolling the dice. Maybe it’s because his education secretary lacks real influence in the cabinet.

But whatever the reason, the growing anger from parents, students and teachers over the Covid chaos in schools is something that every government should definitely be aware of. New figures from the Education Department exposed the problem, with a massive 330,000 students forced into self-isolation in the past week.

Returning from distance and home schooling is difficult for the children but also for their parents, especially when they lose income because they cannot go to work. Equally important is the social loss that has arisen, with many missing out on year-end trips, sporting events, and school productions.

And yet there is a solution. Schools have participated in clinical trials on a system of daily testing that prevents close Covid contacts from being automatically isolated at home. Instead of quarantining an entire 30th class or even an entire grade, only those who actually tested positive have to stay at home. Staff and students who tested negative may appear as normal.

The headmaster of Westhoughton High School in Bolton (yes, that was a Delta hotspot) revealed today how successful the pilot was. More than 500 students and employees did not have to isolate themselves, which led to a huge 3,500 “saved learning hours”.

The academic gains from class time are evident. But I was most impressed by Patrick Ottley-O’Connor’s remark to Radio 4’s World At One that “being able to stay in school has had a massively positive impact on student mental health.”

Fortunately, Sajid Javid has indicated that he would like to act on such pilots. And sources in the DfE indicate that such tests will be the norm by September. But many are wondering why there is currently no action. When asked whether the government had waived any changes for this term, the Prime Minister’s spokesman said: “Of course, that’s not how I describe it at all.” Unless it wasn’t obvious.

The pilots need to be assessed, but they have been running for several weeks and it is worth asking why there was no expedited assessment for testing, just as there was for vaccines. The JCVI managed to give the UK a head start on vaccine approval precisely because it made a reasonable risk assessment.

The great irony of the current sluggishness in school tests is that it has always been the prime minister’s early preferred route out of the pandemic. It was mass testing that was his “moon shot,” though in the end it was Matt Hancock’s early gamble on vaccines that really reached for the stars (and don’t forget, Dominic Cummings ridiculed Hancock for it last fall).

But equally astounding to some Tory MPs was the indolence about the schools’ catch-up policy. Boris Johnson told us last June, a whole year ago, that there would be “a massive catch-up campaign in the summer” for the schools. (Spoiler: it did not materialize). In March he said, “I think for me the legacy is education.” It was “an opportunity to make amends,” he said.

But as the former Nachholzar Sir Kevan Collins made clear today, this promise has not yet been kept. Collins’ testimony to the Education Committee was politically devastating as well as patient and methodical. The cost-benefit analysis (£ 100bn and maybe £ 420bn could be lost to the loss of education in the economy) was overwhelming, even for a treasury bean counter.

Most sensibly, based on his own long experience in dealing with schools and social policies for children, he simply said the Prime Minister’s response was “weak” given the enormity of the challenge. He pointed out that he had presented his £ 15 billion case for an extended school day to the Prime Minister, Chancellor and Gavin Williamson (and interestingly, Michael Gove).

With only £ 1.4 billion pledged so far, Collins said the prime minister’s signal to receive even more money later this year was not made “in bad faith”. His complaint was that later that year it would be too late. And he also accused the Treasury Department of sticking to its spending review schedule (from November) instead of focusing on the schedule for the school year (starting in September).

As with school tests, this was about lack of urgency. Children are on average two months behind in reading and three months behind, and these averages mask even worse statistics for the poorest children. Collins pointed out that a child transitioning from elementary to high school in the next year could get into a downward spiral. With more textbooks, more subjects, there was a risk that they would “not catch up” and instead go backwards.

Collins called for a 10-year school spending strategy that is exactly the kind of bold ambition the Johnson administration may have to pursue alongside similar ambitions for the NHS. It is not for nothing that Labour’s new shadow chancellor Rachel Reeves has the catch-up financing amounting to 15 billion euros.

The Treasury Department was privately questionable about Collins’ overtime schedule, suggesting that teachers should not be allowed to wear it. But the real obstacle could be the long-term nature of the cash needed. Because once you’ve started spending real money tackling educational inequalities, it can’t be a one-time event that you can later take away.

Indeed, spending assessments are usually the place for such commitments. But if an emergency leave program (brilliantly by HMT officials) can be designed in as short a time as last year, why not a “summer education plan” that parallels the “winter economic plan”?

As I wrote last year, responding to the pandemic shouldn’t be just about life and livelihood, it should be about life opportunities. And when the prime minister can’t even solve his personal “inheritance problem”, the public may wonder what happens to all the issues that he doesn’t care about.

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