On Tuesday, the Treasury dug up £120 million for children’s summer meals (a mere droplet in the over £300 billion total that it may spend this year as a consequence of the virus). Today, it has found £1 billion for their education – £300 million of it to help tutor the most disadvantaged pupils.
We have yet to see the details of how it will be spent; Gavin Williamson will lead this evening’s press conference. Downing Street seems to have grasped that the continued closure of most schools is now its number one Coronavirus-induced problem – now that the threat to the NHS has receded, at least for the moment.
For the education double-whammy is both political and economic. Politically, Boris Johnson can’t even begin to start “levelling-up” Britain if most children are missing school, and the socialisation as well as the teaching it brings, with the disadvantaged suffering most. Seven hundred thousand children may be doing no study at all.
Economically, parents can’t work properly at home, let alone go to a workplace, if they have young children at home. There will be no tax revenue-generating, wealth-providing growth if the economy has one hand behind its back.
Worse, Ministers can’t be certain what Covid-19 will be doing, come the autumn. If the struggle against it really is like a war, it’s an unusual and perhaps a unique one to fight – like a struggle against a hidden terrorist force, whose location, durability and strength is unknown.
The evidence we have suggests that the virus is in retreat, the NHS is secure (for the moment), and that the Government can carry on dismantling the lockdown over the summer, even if infection numbers rise. But they could do so more rapidly in the autumn or, more likely, the winter.
The Prime Minister must therefore grapple not only with these uncertainties, but with two consequences. First, he can’t force teachers to teach. Second, he can’t compel parents to send children to school. This education problem is not unique to Britain: see Charlotte Gill’s piece recently on this site about how it’s at work in other countries.
Having dumped Williamson in it by suggesting the impossible – namely, squaring the return of primary pupils by the end of this term with classes that have halved in size – Johnson will have to be less sweeping and more focused this time round.
Number Ten is illness-weakened, overstretched, short of time – the summer term ends in roughly a month – media-battered, exhausted and crisis-hit: see today’s other leading story, from which the education announcement is in part a distraction: the NHS App plan collapse.
Downing Street can’t do everything at once, and must thus make a strategic choice. It can either focus exclusively on getting schools open, or at least on the provision of education for pupils by the start of the autumn term; or else try too to launch a national educational programme over the summer.
The latter would mean finding premises, volunteers and systems in short order, not to mention trying to ensure that the likely doesn’t happen – that the most agile parents with the sharpest elbows win out, while those who are disengaged from education, and whose children are thus more likely to be too, lose.
Knowing what we know about the capacities of government, even at the best of times, we are doubtful whether what Johnson would call an oven-ready system can be cooked up in roughly a month. Focusing on September is more practicable. Which means one of two broad ways forward.
We hope that by September the two metre rule is relaxed, that bubbles can be expanded, that the halving of classroom sizes will be no more, and that schools will therefore be able to return to a condition as near normality as is possible.
If they can’t, then either other buildings and premises will have to found in short order, or else Ministers will have no alternative, if they want to avoid rotas, but to push for online learning in the same structured way throughout the school day that much of the private sector is providing.
Readers will have spotted the obvious: that the teaching unions are likely to be no less exacting about teaching in empty libraries or sports centres, or working online for each school day, than they have been so far about the re-opening of schools – with damaging consequences.
If the Prime Minister is to issue an instruction to re-open, he will need to prepare the ground. That means at least one big Monday education speech very soon. Not about reform, the future of universities, a shift to technical education or any other policy matter. But, rather, crafted as an appeal to parents.
He must try to move them from a presumption of not sending their children to school to one of doing so. At the same time, he will have to ensure that Downing Street will listen to the Education Secretary no less than it speaks to him, and ask himself whether Williamson’s credibility as a salesman is shot.
We repeat: the Education Secretary has a home insight into schools that some of his colleagues lack (his wife is a primary school teacher), and went about trying to get them working again by pulling at many of the right levers: praising teachers, and stressing the role that education plays in increasing life chances.
If he is to be moved, Number Ten will have to work more closely with his successor. As a rule, this site is against rapid promotions, prizing presentational skills above departmental experience, and asking Ministers to make a leap up which may be too much of a stretch.
But these are unusual circumstances, and we tentatively float the names of two junior Ministers. One wasn’t educated in Britain at all until she was 16; the other started out at work in a car factory in Merseyside. That’s Kemi Badenoch and Gillian Keegan respectively.
One’s broadly from the party’s right and the other from its left. Badenoch has found the right blend of grasp and toughness over race and riots; Keegan is a junior Minister in the department and will know how some of its wheels work.
Whether Williamson stays or goes, both he, Prime Minister and the Chancellor all know that getting education going again is not only key to delivering levelling-up but also to salvaging the economy. There are less than three months until the autumn term begins and the Government is short of time.