Robert Halfon is MP for Harlow, a former Conservative Party Deputy Chairman, Chair of the Education Select Committee and President of Conservative Workers and Trade Unionists.
As the Treasury prepares for the Comprehensive Spending Review this autumn, there are many compelling arguments why schools and colleges should get a funding boost. But levelling up isn’t just about more money. Ministers also need to get to the root as to why progress on closing the attainment gap was stalling, even before the pandemic.
The Government has provided significant additional funding of more than £3 billion for catch-up. This money comes on top of the £220 million for the Holidays Activities and Food programme, the £63 million for local councils for help with meals and essential supplies for struggling families, and the extra £79 million to support children and young people’s mental health. The pupil premium is also being increased to more than £2.5 billion in 2021 to 2022.
The schools minister made clear that the recovery funding was only just the beginning and not the end of the road for catch-up. But it appears it is not reaching the most disadvantaged pupils. The National Audit Office reported that only 44 per cent of the 41,000 receiving tuition in February were eligible for the pupil premium. There was also significant regional disparity; the NTP reached 100 per cent of its target number of schools in the South West of England by March, but just 58.8 per cent in the North East.
If the catch-up programme is going to be the success I believe it could be, it is absolutely vital this support is directed towards the most disadvantaged.
To achieve this, it is important that we allow schools more autonomy over tuition; to permit teachers to appoint their own catch-up tutors, and not leave it solely to the “Approved Partners” already chosen by the Department for Education, but with clear criteria in terms of quality and outcomes. The teachers and support staff, who have done so much during this pandemic, are not only best placed to identify those most in need of additional support, but they can also offer the quality catch-up that these pupils require.
Despite the remarkable efforts of schools in my constituency of Harlow and across our country, we know that Covid-19 has exacerbated an existing problem. The attainment gap between disadvantaged pupils and their better-off peers has grown significantly.
Pre-pandemic, disadvantaged pupils were 18 months behind their better off peers by the time they sat their GCSEs. Furthermore, we know that poorer children are less likely to attend schools with an outstanding Ofsted rating and that even in schools where there are good results, the gap between free school meals students and their peers is as wide as elsewhere.
One way to address these inequalities, would be to hold schools accountable for the progress they make in improving the academic outcomes of the most deprived students.
While highly-rated schools have better results overall, the gap between pupils entitled to free school meals and other pupils is the same in schools, whether they are judged outstanding, good, satisfactory or inadequate.
Schools live or die by their Ofsted inspections. No school should be graded outstanding unless they have shown they are improving the progress of pupils from all backgrounds in their local area.
Inspectors should only judge schools outstanding if they can demonstrate that they are making efforts to attract the poorest children in their neighbourhoods, and that they are narrowing achievement gaps between vulnerable pupils and the rest.
In order to receive an outstanding rating, schools must be working to narrow the attainment gap between vulnerable pupils and their better-off peers. Schools could act to work with neighbouring schools to raise standards. Moreover, teams of inspectors should include at least one headteacher who has led a school with high numbers of poorer pupils.
As Sir Kevan Collins pointed out, the average pupil has missed 115 days of school. Children face the four horsemen of the apocalypse: lost learning, an epidemic of poor mental health, safeguarding hazards and a potential loss of lifelong earnings per pupil of up to £40,000.
The Department for Education should also look to reform the pupil premium. Currently, the funding to schools is not ring-fenced and recently a Sutton Trust report highlighted that a third of schools are using the pupil premium to plug other gaps in their budgets, like fixing a leaky roof. Not only should the pupil premium be ring-fenced but there should be much more microtargeting of disadvantaged groups, particularly looking at those who suffer long-term disadvantage.
I have made several appeals for extending the school day to provide pupils with enrichment extracurricular activities to improve mental health and wellbeing, mixed with an academic catch-up programme, to empower our young people and help them grow in confidence. In turn, a generation will be less likely to be lost to an ever-growing attainment gap and the added burden of the pandemic over the past 16 months.
The benefits are clear. In 2017, DCMS found that underachieving young people who participated in extra-curricular sports increased their numeracy skills by 29 per cent above those who did not. And children engaged in school sports clubs are 20 per cent less likely to suffer from mental health disorders.
Sheffield Hallam University reports community sport and physical activity has generated social and economic return on investment for children and young people, including £4.5 million from improved educational attainment and a further £38.6 million from fewer crime incidents among males aged 10-24 years.
According to the Education Endowment Foundation, pupils can make two months’ additional progress per year, with disadvantaged pupils benefiting from closer to three months’ progress. It’s worth noting that 39 per cent of academies founded before 2010 have lengthened their school day and I’ve seen schools in my own constituency of Harlow that do so very successfully.
But credit where credit’s due. This £3 billion commitment to education, alongside the Lifetime Skills Guarantee, the Chancellor’s Kickstart scheme, as well as incentive funding for employers taking on apprentices, shows the real direction of travel.
This was a hefty starter. The main course will be a serious long-term plan for education with a secure funding settlement. My hope is that the Government reaches this point by the Comprehensive Spending Review later this year.