Published:

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.

Almost £5 billion has been spent on education recovery by the Government. This spending is welcome, but I worry this funding is not reaching the most vulnerable children in our communities.

The National Tutoring Programme (NTP), currently contracted to Randstad, has the potential to be one of the great interventions made to date to support young people’s recovery from the impact of the pandemic. And yet, despite significant investment, it is falling far short of its targets and it’s not going far enough or happening quickly enough.

Over 524,000 children were supposed to start tutoring this year but only eight per cent have actually begun.

The Education Policy Institute has found there has been a marked disparity in the take-up of the NTP between the North and the South. In the South, upwards of 96 per cent of schools were engaging with the programme compared to just 50 per cent of schools in the North. Recently, headteachers and tutoring groups described to us the inaccessibility of the hub and the lack of quality assurance about the tutors on offer.

Perhaps most importantly of all, the Department for Education’s own annual report, published in December, evidenced that the risk of the catch-up programme failing to recover lost learning is critical or very likely.

The Government must look again at the contract with Randstad and seriously consider enacting the break clause. If Randstad cannot up its game, it is time to say goodbye.

The ghost children

A recent report published by the Centre for Social Justice, Lost but not forgotten, highlighted that 758 schools across the country are missing almost an entire class worth of children. Indeed, around 500 children are missing in about half of all local authorities and over 13,000 children in critical exam years are likely to be severely absent.

The effects of persistent absence go well beyond just academic progress. It also means these children are at risk for safeguarding concerns such as domestic abuse or county line gangs. The tragic cases of Arthur Labinjo-Hughes and Star Hobson are an all too poignant reminder of this risk.

The Department’s recent announcements to tackle the postcode lottery of avoidable absence are a positive start, but more urgent action is needed. Prioritisation must be given to collecting real-time data about who and where these children are and the Government should use the underspend from the NTP to fund an additional two thousand attendance advisers to work on the ground to help find these children and get them safely back into school.

Charles Dickens wrote of: “so many things forgotten, and so many more which might have been repaired”.

If we are to save the Oliver Twist generation of “ghost children”, we must act now. If we do nothing, we will be haunted by them forever.

The exam conundrum

I welcome the Government’s plan to move back to regular examinations. Given that so many children missed school over the course of the pandemic due to school closures, it is understandable that Ofqual has decided to give pupils advanced information about some aspects of the topics that will be assessed to help support their revision.

But there are two elephants in the room. The first being that essentially, all students will now be running a 50m sprint, instead of a 100m race, yet they will all be starting from the same point. This may seem fair, but for disadvantaged pupils who learned the least during the pandemic, they will now be pitted directly against their better-off peers who were able to continue their learning at home.

The Government’s reply to this will be that the catch-up programme is designed to alleviate this problem, but as described above, despite the 524,000 target set by the NTP, it is currently only reaching eight per cent of pupils.

The second elephant, also referenced to above, is that according to the Centre for Social Justice, we know that over 13,000 children in exam years have not returned to school for the most part. So a system has been created where advantaged pupils will feel the benefit of the advanced notice, but their worse-off peers will struggle. Furthermore, we risk ignoring the 13,000 pupils in A-Level and GCSE year groups who have not returned to school at all.

Mental health

This week is Children’s Mental Health Week – a timely reminder about the need to address the challenges surrounding children’s mental health.

The statistics we are confronted with are pretty grim.

Just last year, 17.4 per cent of children aged 6-16 are reported to have a probable mental health disorder (up from 11.6 per cent in 2017). Eating disorders among young girls have risen by 46 per cent. The number of young people being referred to Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services have been steadily rising to 538,564 in 2020, representing an increase of 35 per cent from 2019, and 60 per cent from 2018.

The Government must rocket boost its proposals to put mental health professionals in every school. But interventions to support mental health must not be seen as crutches, but should be designed to teach resilience to prevent more serious escalation.

Work must also be done to tackle the wrecking ball of social media on young people’s mental health.

In 2021, 16.7 per cent of 11 to 16 year olds using social media agreed that the number of likes, comments and shares they received had an impact on their mood. Half agreed that they spent more time on social media than they meant to and one in three girls said they were unhappy with their personal appearance by the age of fourteen.

Companies like TikTok, which, whilst providing some entertaining, are sadly acting as a trojan horse for sexualised content and negative body image thereby perpetuating eating disorders which have increased by 400 per cent among young girls during lockdown. As with other social media platforms, TikTok algorithms are like “crack for kids”.

We know that half of all mental health problems manifest by the age of 14, and 75 per cent by the age of 24. With the clear links between using social media platforms and poor mental health, why are the tech giants not stepping up to do more?

The Treasury should introduce a two per cent levy on the estimated £4.8 billion of profits generated by the big firms. This levy could generate a funding pot of around £100 million which could be distributed to schools to improve mental health support and to provide digital skills training to help support children’s resilience online.

Given the scale of the mental health challenges facing our young people, action has to be taken now to prevent it becoming an epidemic.