James Frayne is Director of Public First and author of Meet the People, a guide to moving public opinion.

The Government has pledged over £3 billion to help pupils recover from their disrupted education, including £1.4 billion announced last week. But this wasn’t enough for the Education Recovery Commissioner Sir Kevan Collins who resigned claiming far more was needed.

Some others have said the same. How will this affect the Government politically? What do parents want? What do voters want? How will this row play out in public?

My agency Public First has just conducted an opinion research project into all this for the Centre for Policy Studies. The research comprised a poll of parents and another of the general public, as well as a series of focus groups of parents across the country. In the research, we found the following:

  • Parents definitely are worried about their children’s academic progress: 48 per cent of parents overall said they worried their children had fallen behind, with working class parents particularly concerned (54 per cent of parents from a C2 background expressed this concern). In the focus groups, while parents were often likely to raise concerns about their children’s mental health/ happiness first, they tended to dwell more on academic issues.
  • Given a range of options – offering parents the chance to air concerns about both the both the academic and social effects the pandemic had had on their children – parents were much more concerned about the academic effects. 62 per cent of parents said their child had fallen behind in maths (the top answer). While “social skills” came joint second with science subjects, academic concerns were higher across this question than social concerns.
    44 per cent of parents said they worried their children’s prospects have been negatively affected.
  • Most parents thought it would take up to two years for their children to catch up. The focus groups revealed parents with less money and lower education levels were less confident about their roles in helping their children catch up.
  • Asked who is to “blame” for children falling behind, most parents blame “the pandemic” rather than the Government. (This is in line with attitudes towards the pandemic generally and has been since last March).
  • In focus groups, while parents were sympathetic to the idea that the least-affluent children should receive particular support in a catch-up period, they were hostile to the idea their own children should receive no support; parents wanted a general national catch-up plan.
  • Given a range of policy options the Government might take to help children catch up, free hours with a private tutor is the most popular; interestingly, longer school holidays to give children more fun in the summer was opposed by parents and the public.
  • Given a range of policy areas the public might accept higher personal taxes to fund, helping schools help children catch up was the most popular option.

You can read the full tables here.

What does all this mean politically? We need to consider two points to help us evaluate this properly. First, most opinion research suggests the public are primarily concerned about the economy and the NHS; education is at least somewhat less important to most people. There is a danger in very focused, sector-based polling that you obsess about what’s directly in front of you; we need to be clear that education is important – vitally so to many parents – but it’s not jobs and hospitals.

Second, the public are fearful about the future state of the economy and currently oppose tax rises, preferring to see the Government rely on borrowing.

Collins’ resignation amid demands for many billions more in funding therefore shouldn’t immediately cause the Government massive political problems with most of the public. However, it has unquestionably raised the medium-term political stakes for the Government. The resignation has ensured that a light will be shone on every aspect of the Government’s planning and execution of the catch-up programme. In other words, there will be no hiding place for the Government; it has to deliver.

Just because education doesn’t worry most people in a pandemic as much as the economy and healthcare, it doesn’t mean it’s not a vitally important policy area. We know that it is viewed as vital – and we also know from our research that the public are very clear how and why their children have fallen behind and where they’d like to see the Government focus their attention during catch-up. The public ultimately want the Government to help children recover academically – in the most serious subjects. This could not have been clearer.

The Government has clearly decided it hasn’t got the money for a longer school day – or at least, that it wouldn’t deliver the benefits that it would cost; against those other spending pressures like the NHS it is probably right. Everything therefore hinges now on the effective delivery – and probably significant expansion – of a proper tutoring programme. And the Government needs to start getting some credit for it; when we did focus groups, only one person even knew tutoring was happening and no one knew the Government was pouring billions into making it happen. It should be shouting about this from the rooftops, and make sure that parents know what their child is entitled to.