Miriam Cates: The uncomfortable truth is that we’re failing many families – but have a post-pandemic chance to put that right.

30 Mar

Miriam Cates is MP for Penistone and Stocksbridge 

Britain’s vaccination programme and the Chancellor’s recent Budget will bring fresh opportunities to reimagine the policies and processes that govern us. So many of us have become remote workers, home-schoolers and serial Zoomers and, and while much of this will revert back to normal, I suspect some of our new patterns of behaviour will stick.

We know that by-and-large the pandemic has not been a ‘great leveller’. While some of my constituents have enjoyed their new-found flexibility, others have found balancing work and home commitments nothing less than impossible. Flexibility is great if you can get it, but not all people have the kind of jobs that allow them to juggle their caring responsibilities for children and elderly relatives. Many parents of young children live with the constant struggle of trying to make ends meet whilst longing to spend more quality time with their kids.

A re-emphasis on the value of family life could be the most exciting product of the changes brought about by the pandemic. We must ensure our tax system acknowledges people as mothers, fathers, sons and daughters who form a household, not just individual units who are worth more to the economy the more they work. After all, this is a false economy.

I was recently privileged to host the launch of a new CARE Tax and the Family report, Taxation of UK families 2019, which helps to highlight some of the challenges families face and how we might chart a way forward towards a fairer future.

As a result of Gordon Brown’s decision to abolish the Married Couple Allowance and Additional Person’s Allowance in 2000, someone who earns let;s say £40,000 a year, will pay the same amount of income tax and national insurance regardless of whether they are a single adult with no dependants, or a lone parent supporting three children.

For a one-earner household with four children to have the same standard of living as a single person earning £26 500, the working parent has to earn nearly £80,000, a salary over three times the median income. According to the  new report, single parents with two children on the average OECD wage for the UK of £40,803 face an ‘overall tax burden’ (that is income tax and national insurance, less benefits) that is 26 per cent higher than the OECD average.  For a one-earner married couple with two children on the same wage, the tax burden is 25 per cent higher. Meanwhile, singles in the UK without children on the same wage pay on average ten per cent less tax than they do across the OECD on average.

This problem is further compounded by the way that benefits are clawed back as parents try to work more hours. This gives UK families one of the highest effective marginal tax rates in the world, with some families losing 75p of every additional £1 they earn. It is the impact of this double whammy of the high tax rate and high benefit withdrawal that makes the British effective marginal tax rate so problematic.

How our tax system treats families is an indicator of how much society values children; the uncomfortable truth is that we are failing many families in this regard.

For years, the UK response to the problems faced by working families has been to strive for more and more cheap childcare, but I don’t think this is the answer and, in many ways, it has devalued the role of parents.

It was never any Government’s intention to create a tax system that is so individualistic, but tax policies reflect – and often drive – the behaviour we value as a society. Our current system encourages as many people as possible into paid work to drive up GDP, but fails to recognise any wider contribution made by individuals such as providing unpaid care.

I believe that at the heart of this unfairness lies a lost understanding of the value of parenting. Of course parents have a responsibility to provide materially for their children; but this is not their only important role. We don’t just have children to put food in their mouths and clothes on their backs, but also to pass on our values and to prepare them for adult life. Parenting takes time, effort and a huge amount of emotional resilience; resources that are in short supply when stressed parents are working long hours and have little energy to spare.

When parents can’t cope and families break down this is at great cost to the taxpayer. While reforming our tax system to recognise family responsibility would – in the immediate term – be costly, surely it is far better to invest in preventing families from collapsing than to spend money picking up the pieces.

There is another way. Almost all other developed countries have tax systems that recognise family responsibility and the significant costs of raising children. In Germany, families receive effective tax allowances that acknowledge the importance of parenting, encouraging parents to invest time and energy in raising their children. We could do a lot worse than learning from our friends and allies and the approaches they take.

Any review of the income tax system in the UK will take time, but it will be worth it. Supporting families should not be politically controversial; as Conservatives, we have always held families and the role of parents in high esteem. And as Conservatives we also know that we can’t afford not to.

Andrea Leadsom: The first 1001 days of a child’s life are critical

27 Mar

Andrea Leadsom MP is chair of the Early Years Healthy Development Review, which has just published a six-point action plan.

Campaigning for every baby to get the best start in life has been my passion for more than 20 years. From founding parent infant charities to help families who are struggling with their new baby, to establishing the 1001 Critical Days Manifesto with cross party parliamentary support, I am profoundly aware that the period from conception to the age of two is the foundation of our lifelong potential as human beings.

Babies cannot fend for themselves at all until they are at least two years old, making them uniquely susceptible to the environment around them. Most families provide the loving attentive care that their baby needs, but for every new family it is a challenging and often exhausting time, and for some, problems ranging from poor mental health to substance misuse, and from deprivation to domestic violence will get in the way.

Better support for every family can transform those earliest experiences, and that’s what the Vision for the 1001 Critical Days will achieve.

Securely attached infants are much more likely to go on to become adults who cope well with life’s ups and downs, build strong relationships at work and at home, and are better equipped to raise their own children.

There is no doubt in my mind that we must invest in universal, joined up Start for Life services, so I was delighted when the Prime Minister asked me last July to chair the Early Years Healthy Development Review.

When we started work on the Review, I was clear that the needs of the baby must be at the heart of everything we do. The coronavirus pandemic has put even more pressure on already struggling families and, just as we need to level up economic opportunity across the country, we need to level up the health and care provision for the very youngest in our society.

Our plan sets out 6 key areas for action:

1. Seamless support for families: a coherent joined up Start for Life offer available to all families.
2. A welcoming hub for families: Family Hubs as a place for families to access Start for Life services.
3. The information families need when they need it: designing digital, virtual and telephone offers around the needs of the family, including a digital version of the Red Book for every new baby.
4. An empowered Start for Life workforce: developing modern skilled workers able to meet the changing needs of families.
5. Continually improving the Start for Life offer: enhancing data, evaluation, outcomes and proportionate inspection.
6. Leadership for change: ensuring local and national accountability and building the economic case for more investment in the start for life.

The implementation phase begins now, and I will continue to lead the work on behalf of the Government for the next year, in close collaboration with local partners across England.

Investing in the 1,001 critical days will have a truly transformational impact on our society, and I am confident that delivering this Vision will help millions of families to give their baby the very best Start for Life.

Jonathan Simons: Let’s build on the education reforms we worked for – not tear them down

23 Mar

Jonathan Simons is a Director and Head of the Education Practice at Public First, and a former government adviser.

“The pyramids themselves, doting with age, have forgotten the names of their founders”

These words are from Thomas Fuller, a churchman and historian during the English Civil War. His argument is that over time, even the greatest monuments can be taken for granted. We admire their presence, rather than how they came to be.

It is important to remember that the system of state education in England is comparatively recent. We have only had a national curriculum since 1988. Schools have only been allowed to be free from local government control since the early 1990s – and as recently as a decade ago, only around 200 of 23,000 schools were using these freedoms. It was only in 2010 that Michael Gove made a series of significant structural and curricular changes to state education in England.

Yet in the last year, I have observed the uncomfortable situation in which some Conservatives who claim the mantle of education reformers are simultaneously advocating Covid-driven changes which at best pay little heed to, and at worst threaten to actively undermine, the reasons why the reforms made in 2010 were done and remain so important.

By no means was the Gove programme perfect. In part, the underpinning legal and regulatory system was not thought through properly. No one would imagine – nor would find desirable – the fact that, 11 years later, Gavin Williamson runs over 5,000 schools under contract, governed by a strange mix of company law and charity law, directly from Westminster.

But the risk is that in this time of widespread feeling that Something Must Be Done, we are forgetting the names of the founders of the pyramids and the work that they went through.

The planning before the election, the bringing together of fellow dedicated reformers (Nick Gibb now the last one standing), and the battles that they fought within an education sector and against opponents who were implacably opposed both to the theory of change and seemingly – at times – the very legitimacy of politicians to presume to interfere in those matters which ought in their view to be left to the sector.

This all, among too many Conservatives, has become ancient history. And at the very time when even erstwhile opponents like Fiona Millar say they recognise that the current system has some legitimacy by virtue of its persistence, those who ought to be its strongest supporters risk forgetting that history.

Because make no mistake about it: while there are many well-intentioned people who rightly argue in a time of Covid that all parts of the State may need to be considered afresh, there are some who have maintained a hostility to all elements of reform, and who are using the cover of a pandemic to march under an old standard once again.

The second risk is that in an attempt to be seen as more reasonable and accommodating, some current Conservatives may not only forget the history of battles fought, but will not understand why they were fought in the first place.

This is the most frustrating thing about education policy: that those things which evidence and practice suggests are most likely to work are often the hardest to describe and seek support for. They don’t sound immediately obvious. They don’t have snappy slogans. Real education reform doesn’t compete well in the marketplace for short attention spans against cries of “scrap GCSEs” or “ban exclusions” or “educate children for the jobs of the future”.

It is easy for opponents to cast aspersions on the motives of reformers. Why, they ask, is it that some people don’t want to see happy children? Why is it that they want to see such travesties as rote learning, thick textbooks, the pressure of exams, children filled with facts from a world of predominantly white men, and classrooms with rows of desks?

All too often, the challenge is not answered. And that answer is that, of course reformers want the same thing. Everyone wants young people leaving school who are happy, well rounded, educated young people – those who are ready to take their place in the United Kingdom and to forge their own destiny.

The question is one of means, not ends. It is about how best all young people – and in particular, those who are born with less of the attendant advantages of wealth and familial support – can be supported to do so.

And here reformers take the leap away from much of that which sounds instinctive. We do not, as the village, raise the child through letting them stumble around under a delusion of kindness. We bring to bear – gently, sympathetically, but unapologetically – the collective wisdom of all our prior generations.

We know, and are unashamed of saying, that there is what Professor Michael Young called powerful knowledge, which is knowledge which unlocks further knowledge, and it is this which we prioritise for passing on.

We know, and are unashamed of saying, that well designed assessments and exams, including at GCSE, tell us how young people are performing, allow us to hold schools to account, and aid children in retaining this powerful knowledge for future life.

We know, and are unashamed of saying, that the teacher is the expert in the room, and aided by stores of knowledge and their own expertise, that their role is to instruct the student.

We know, and are unashamed of saying, that we set the highest expectations of all pupils, and that poor behaviour cannot be accepted. It is by doing all these things that, rather than hamper children, we best develop them as happy, confident, creative young people.

This message takes time and understanding. It does not always fit within the day to day rhythms of political life. But it is the golden thread of true education reformers of all parties: just as Gove built on work of Andrew Adonis and David Blunkett, who in turn developed that of Ken Baker and others.

And while this does not mean, of course, that nothing should ever change, it is the role of those who truly have the highest expectations for young people to understand what has been built and why, and not give in easily and carelessly to whims, or slogans, or loose calls for radical change.

Such people should also note Swift’s maxim that the echo of a London coffee house does not reflect the voice of the kingdom. Beneath the chatter of supposed discontent, a lot of work we have done at Public First with parents of all social classes and political leanings shows that they want just this type of education for their own children.

So when attention turns, as it does at the moment, to how our school system should react to Covid, we should remind ourselves what are the pyramidal stones on which our system has been built, and ask whether the proposed solutions are likely to strengthen those foundations – or send them toppling down.

Cristina Odone: How to help poorer mothers – and become a family-friendly government by doing so

11 Mar

Cristina Odone is Head of Family Policy at the Centre for Social Justice.

“They shouldn’t have children if they can’t afford them.”

I heard this familiar refrain often, when I was growing up, directed at lone mothers raising a brood of kids on welfare. Why should hard-working tax-payers shell out so someone could slob about the house in pyjamas and curlers, children at their feet?

That was America, in the 1970s. But a spirit not dissimilar is at work in twenty-first century Britain. The state sees no reason to help mothers who don’t work.

Yes, the Government, which offers up to 30 hours of free childcare for three and four-year-olds to families, will extend this to mothers who have been furloughed.

The policy has packed a less than powerful punch for low income families: at a recent extraordinary witness session of the Early Years Commission run jointly by the Centre for Social Justice and the Fabian Society, participants reported that because there “is no norm of pre-school offer” and the offer is too complicated, the share of childcare spending on low-income families has fallen by close to half, from 45 per cent to 27 per cent.

The aim was to promote female participation in the labour market. Successive governments from New Labour on have regarded this as a priority: more taxes raised, less benefits paid. It makes financial sense when you calculate that £16.7 million is lost every year in potential tax gains and benefits paid to mums who have not returned to work.

A tax system that treats us as single units seems equally sensible. We may be parenting the same children, but we regard ourselves as autonomous individuals, judged on our own merit.

This mindset suits many women. High-profile and professional, they regularly take to social media and the airwaves to hail free childcare for liberating women, and limit their asks to equal pay for equal work, flexi-time at the office, more part time opportunities – and maybe a creche at work.

These women have a well-paid career – or a wealthy partner or spouse. They can afford to spend the first years of their children’s lives off work, or to hire a nanny or au pair. They will still multi-task crazily, taking on maternal and professional tasks. They will still bridle at the glass ceiling that persists across almost every industry. But they can afford a family.

Slide down the earnings ladder to the woman for whom work amounts to a job, not a high-flying career. How can she afford to raise a family? She would love to stay home to care for her children, provide a role model for them, share with them her own parents’ values and traditions. She senses what neuroscience confirms: that those first 1001 days from conception are key in a child’s development. And even later on, schools may offer a great deal – but until they are 14, a child spends 84 per cent of their time at home.

This working mother loses out on every front. After tax, her spouse’s income is not enough for the family to survive on, so she must work too. Neither partner can afford to work part time: anything less than what they earn now would spell penury. She can’t do overtime, though, without worrying about leaving her children vulnerable to gang-recruitment or child sexual exploitation.

The couple work all hours just to break even, and arrive home stressed and exhausted. Money worries and job uncertainty (McKinsey reports that women’s jobs are 1.8 times more vulnerable during the pandemic than men’s) rock the relationship. The family risks breakdown – with all the damage that this entails.

It need not be this way.

The Treasury could transform this mother’s fate by adopting a simple, tried and tested, approach: tax parents on their combined income, and offer them tax credits for each child. With this one move, the Chancellor would recognise the value of the family, and the important role parents play in forming the next generation.

Championing this fiscal model is a high-profile mother – the Miriam Cates, the recently-elected MP for Penistone and Stockbridge. Cates is socialising the idea at Westminster – and getting traction among women both sides of the House.

The present system, Cates points out, ignores total household income and parental responsibilities. A woman on £30,000 a year will pay the same amount of tax and national insurance, regardless of whether she is living on her own, without children, or is a lone parent with three dependent children.

Cates was inspired by the way the German tax system takes into account the significant costs, in terms of time as well as money, of raising children. By taxing couples on their combined income, Germany promotes rather than penalises single earner families. In this country the opposite is true – so that a one earner couple with two children in the UK pays nine times the taxes that their counterpart in Germany will pay. The child tax credit – in Germany, this is £2500 – further contributes to a more family-friendly fiscal system.

For Cates, representing a Red Wall constituency, this is a key part of any levelling up agenda: why should raising children become an elitist pursuit? She has a point: a government willing to subsidise restaurants and pubs can surely subsidise children, too.

Being seen as a family-friendly government would prove popular – and not only among the socially conservative Red Wall voters. A recent CSJ survey found that 88 per cent of parents and 82 per cent of adults thought that more should be done to help parents who wish to stay at home and bring up their children in the early years.

The benefits of incentivising one-earner families extend well beyond the home. The present system, which steers everyone into paid work, undermines the other kind of work – the unpaid, altruistic volunteering that has proved key to the country’s resilience during the pandemic. Mothers are not the only ones who have, or should, volunteer; but again and again, they ran the PTA, helped with the church bazaar, offered to shop for the octogenarian neighbour. Help them to be in a position to raise their children and they will be in a position to help the rest of us too.

The Chancellor should stop treating us as atomised individuals, freed of any relational moorings. Families cannot be ignored, nor should they be punished. They could even, dare I say it, be encouraged.

The number of children in care has increased during the pandemic

1 Mar

While all children have had difficulties during periods of lockdown, it is fair to say that the burden has been uneven. If the family home is a large house and a garden, it is a different proposition to an overcrowded flat. The educational attainment gap between rich and poor has predictably widened. Policymakers are considering how this could be addressed. Professor Len Shackleton, in a paper for the Institute of Economic Affairs, notes that rich parents can use private tutors to help their children catch up. He suggests  pupil premium funds could allow poorer parents to do the same:

“More power could be placed in the hands of poorer parents, who are likely in most cases to have a better understanding of their children’s needs. One way to do this might be to redirect the pupil premium in future to parents in the form of vouchers which could be used to hire tutors or to use for other educational purposes such as theatre or concert visits. This was proposed by Frank (now Lord) Field at the time the pupil premium was announced, and fitted in with his general philosophy that the state and its employees make too many decisions which are better taken by individuals and their families.”

But surely the worst consequence of lockdown will be on children taken into care. The increase in domestic violence and mental illness has made that an inevitable “safeguarding requirement.” What is absolutely not inevitable is that the remainder of their childhood should be spent shunted around the care system – with the disastrous consequences for their life chances that so often entails. Yet that is their current destiny.  Most of them will be placed with foster carers who do their best to achieve some stability for the child. Through no fault of the foster carers that seldom lasts long. Usually, the children are often taken back to the “birth mother” then, typically, taken back to care – after more abuse and neglect. Then starting again with a new foster placement. Research from the charity Action for Children found that one in four foster children in the UK moves home two or more times a year. The law that the interests of the child are “paramount” is routinely flouted. Professor Elaine Farmer carried out a five year follow up study of 138 neglected children who had been returned to their families. 59 per cent of the children “had been abused/neglected after return”.

Much better outcomes are achieved by adoption. Justice James Munby, President of the Family Division of the High Court, declared in 2014 that, despite what the Government says, adoption is a “last resort”. Yet it offers children the best chance of a permanent loving home. One study of 165 Romanian orphans adopted in the UK found only two breakdowns. The official mantra is repeated that adoption “can only be considered for a minority” of children in care. Where is the evidence to back up that assertion? The implication is that children in care are too “challenging” for a normal couple to cope with. Some are. Yet the claim that this applies to a majority is never substantiated. On the contrary, it usually follows that examples are then offered of those with the most extreme and exceptional disorder.

Most exasperating is the self-fulfilling prophecy where obstruction and delay is imposed and then the children have been so harmed by years in care that they are deemed too far gone. Around a fifth of children in care are under the statutory school age. It is generally accepted that adoption would be viable for them – it is a question of whether that option is chosen. But what of the great majority of children in care, who are of school age? Of course, the needs and circumstances of each of them will be complicated and unique. But a good starting point to consider the feasibility of adoption is the type of school they are in. If they are in Pupil Referral Units or “alternative provision” that may well mean that they have been excluded for disruptive behaviour. It might well follow that, while adoption should certainly be considered, those willing to take it on might find it a daunting prospect and would need exceptional strength of character. But most children in care do manage to stay in mainstream education. For them the presumption should be that adoption would be the best option.

Using some Freedom of Information requests I have managed to get some indications of the increase in the number of children in care since the last official statistics which relate to March 31st last year. Those figures had a total of 80,080 children in care in England, which was up from 78,140 the previous year. Some local authorities gave me figures which showed only modest changes since last year – broadly in line with the grim slow increase that has been the pattern over a number of  years. But there were many others that showed a significant increase, indicating a coronavirus impact. I also asked for numbers of children in care in mainstream schools and the numbers in Pupil Referral Units

Here are some examples from councils with high totals:

  • Barnsley 349 children in care, up from 300 last year. That includes 218 children in mainstream state education and under five children in “alternative provision” or Pupil Referral Units (PRUs).
  • Birmingham 1,933 up from 1,928. 1,016 in mainstream education. 12 in PRUs.
  • Bradford 1,386 up from 1,245. 774 in mainstream education. 17 in PRUs.
  • Coventry 762 up from 701. 430 in mainstream education. Six in PRUs.
  • Derby 641 up from 588. 389 in mainstream education. Four in PRUs.
  • Doncaster 523 up from 504.  277 in mainstream education. Two in PRUs.
  • Dudley 639 up from 623. 331 in mainstream education. One in a PRU.
  • East Sussex. 615 up from 592. 359 in mainstream education. Two in PRUs.
  • Gloucestershire 797 up from 731. 395 in mainstream education. 19 in PRUs.
  • Leicestershire 694 up from 654.369 in mainstream education. Two in PRUs.
  • Lincolnshire 681 up from 622. 424 in mainstream education. Nine in PRUs.
  • Liverpool 1,508 up from 1,424. 607 in mainstream education. Nine in PRUs.
  • Nottingham 706 up from 656. 390 in mainstream education. Seven in PRUs.
  • Oxfordshire 781 up from 767. 367 in mainstream education. Six in PRUs.
  • Peterborough 378 up from 372. 203 in mainstream education. Three in PRUs.
  • Plymouth 490 up from 434. 253 in mainstream education. 10 in PRUs.
  • Rochdale 559 up from 535. 335 in mainstream education. Eight in PRUs.
  • Rotherham 607 up from 595. 285 in mainstream education. Five in PRUs.
  • Sandwell 888 up from 865. 561 in mainstream education. Six in PRUs.
  • Shropshire 483 up from 399. 263 in mainstream education. 29 in PRUs.
  • Solihull 513 up from 461. 353 in mainstream education. None in PRUs.
  • Somerset 544 up from 529. 296 in mainstream education. Five in PRUs.
  • Southampton 495 up from 486. 324 in mainstream education. Four in PRUs.
  • Southwark 473 up from 458. 256 in mainstream education. Fewer than 10 in PRUs.
  • Staffordshire 1,270 up from 1,217. 662 in mainstream education. Five in PRUs.
  • Stoke 995 up from 919. 627 in mainstream education. Three in PRUs.
  • Suffolk 941 up from 936. 499 in mainstream education. 36 in PRUs.
  • Sunderland 636 up from 582. 435 in mainstream education. Four in PRUs.
  • Tameside 728 up from 704. 363 in mainstream education. None in PRUs.
  • Wakefield 643 up from 639. 425 in mainstream education. Nine in PRUs.
  • Warwickshire 836 up from 754. 432 in mainstream education. Two in PRUs.
  • West Sussex 924 up from 808. 377 in mainstream education. Seven in PRUs.
  • Wigan 610 up from 533. 371 in mainstream education. Six in PRUs.
  • Wirral 825 up from 812. 645 in mainstream education. Five in PRUs.
  • Worcestershire 832 up from 819. 498 in mainstream education. Four in PRUs.

The Conservative Manifesto of 2019 stated:

“Children who end up in care are more likely to struggle as adults, denied the love and stability most of us take for granted. We will prioritise stable, loving placements for those children – adoption where possible or foster parents recruited by the local authority. We will review the care system to make sure that all care placements and settings are providing children and young adults with the support they need.”

Earlier Conservative manifestos and Goverment pronouncements have given the same general promise. To say that there has been a failure to deliver is to understate. Ten years ago – when David Cameron was Prime Minister and Michael Gove was Education Secretary – there was frustration at the lack of any breakthrough on the issue. But a serious effort was made. For Gove it was personal – as he was adopted and he reflected how his life might have turned out very differently. The moral imperative of increasing the opportunity for adoption was highlighted. The difficulty was that the change relied on “guidance” – which was disregarded. But though it was a failure, one could argue it was a heroic failure. The difference now is that those with Ministerial responsibility have given up even trying. The situation is so woeful that no attempt is even being made to honour the Manifesto pledge.

 Around a quarter of prisoners were in care as children. It is estimated that children in care – or “Looked After Children” to use the official bureaucratic euphemism – are more likely to end up in prison than in university. This financial year, local authorities budgeted to spend £4.6 billion on children in care – though it is reported that spending will go over budget. Around 12,000 “children in care” are in children’s homes or “other residential settings.” Local authorities spent £1.4 billion on that in 2018/19, the latest year for which figures are available. So for those children, the annual cost is £116,667 per child. They also have the worst outcomes. Black children are the least likely to escape the care system – due to the pernicious insistence by social workers that they may only be adopted if an “ethnic match” can be secured.

This problem could be overcome with a strong clear legal change to give a presumption in favour of adoption for children in care. Unless that is done, those who went into care during the pandemic face a terrible legacy that could blight, not only the rest of their childhoods, but also their adult lives.

Emily Carver: Covid has exposed the flaws in our education system. It’s time for a radical rethink.

24 Feb

Emily Carver is Head of Media at the Institute of Economic Affairs.

Over the course of this pandemic, J S Mill’s “harm principle” has been used to rationalise the decision to lockdown. At first glance this appears reasonable, however, it rests on the assumption that the harm caused by the virus exceeds that of lockdown. It will be many months before we fully comprehend the impact of the restrictions, but the former assumption may be flawed when applied to education.

The Prime Minister has now confirmed that schools will reopen in March, which will no doubt come as a relief to parents up and down this country. But the temporary school closures, and the disruption of nearly a whole year of education, have severely affected children’s well-being and educational progress – the impact of which will be felt for many years.

The toll on mental health is already recognised. In a survey of over 10,000 parents, over half said they had seen a negative change in the mental health of their children since lockdown. The rates of probable mental disorders among children have risen considerably, increasing from one in nine in 2017 to one in six in July 2020. Anecdotally, parents are reporting a rise in disordered eating, anxiety and loneliness.

Far from being a leveller, the pandemic has, inevitably, impacted disproportionately the education of the already disadvantaged. During the first lockdown, primary age children from the richest third of families received four and a half more hours of learning time compared to those from the poorest third of families. This has compounded pre-existing inequities and is nothing short of a scandal.

Months on, children from middle-class households are still, on average, spending considerably more time learning than those from working-class households. Regional inequalities are also stark, with children in London and the South East spending more time on schoolwork, both online and offline, than those in other parts of the country.

The Government plans to give schools a cash boost to fund “catch up” classes during the summer holidays, and to pay staff to work additional hours to support children who have fallen behind. Such interventions are welcome and should hopefully go some way to mitigating the impact of the last year on pupils’ progress.

However, this will be little more than a sticking plaster unless the Government addresses the broader, more structural problems in our schooling system. It is no secret that our education system is failing many children in this country; you only have to look to the international league tables to see that the UK is underperforming compared to Asian countries, as well as a number of European nations. This should be a national embarrassment.

While it is certainly true that our elite schools, in both the independent and state sector, are some of the highest performing in the world, too many are lagging behind. If the Government is as serious about education as it claims to be, there needs to be a renewed effort to address the system’s failings. It is simply disgraceful that somewhere between 15 and 20 per cent of our young people may be “functionally illiterate” when they leave school!

So, where do we go from here? A new paper by the Institute of Economic Affairs argues this could be the time for a radical rethink of our education system.

To begin with, why do we insist children start school by age five? This is earlier than in most other developed countries and actually dates back to a time when the majority of children left school at ten. Considering that teachers have reported that significant numbers of children are quite simply unprepared to start school at this age (another scandal), it may well be the case that children would be better off entering school a little later, when they are more ready to benefit from formal education. Of course, this will have an impact on pre-schooling arrangements which, at present, greatly advantage the better off. It also seems inexplicable that we have children entering reception classes with almost a year between the oldest and youngest in the class, which has been proven to disadvantage summer babies.

Longer school days have been mooted by politicians over the years, including by the former Education Secretary Michael Gove, but little has changed. If additional classes help those falling behind now due to the pandemic, why not be bold, and extend this into the future? Not only would this allow more scope for extra-curricular activities – something that has been sorely missed during the past year – but the extra hours would allow for homework to be replaced by supervised class work – a welcome move for those pupils who struggle to work from home and a way to improve the educational outcomes of the less advantaged.

However, such policies could prove difficult to implement. The teaching unions have been very resistant to government policy over the course of the pandemic and could present a rather stubborn obstacle in the way of any radical reform of the school year. In order to pursue any meaningful change, the Government would need to amend the national contract, which is tied to the traditional school year, and which the unions may perceive as an existential assault on their influence. Of course, the majority of teachers are not as intransigent as their union representatives and may be more flexible in their attitude towards change, if well-argued.

Successful academies, independent schools and free schools have provided useful models for a way ahead. Free from the restrictions of the national contract, such schools have been able to innovate with their education provision, experiment with the length of the school day and diversify their curricula. It is interesting that many of these institutions serve less-advantaged children and are led by headteachers who advocate “traditional” methods of knowledge-based learning, discipline and pride in the institution itself. Further academisation may provide the flexibility we need to boost standards significantly.

And why not offer parents more choice? The Government currently pays schools a “pupil premium” to support disadvantaged pupils. This amounts to £1,345 for every primary age pupil and £955 for those in secondary school. However, parents have no say in how this is spent. We know how much private tuition can benefit children’s learning, so why not place more power in the hands of less well-off parents and redirect this money in the form of vouchers, which could then be used to hire tutors or for other educational purposes?

It would be naïve to suggest that there are quick fixes to the myriad of challenges facing any secretary of state for education. However, it is clear that this pandemic has shown up fundamental fault lines in the provision of schooling in this country. If the Government is really serious about levelling-up, there has to be a reconsideration of the way in which we provide education; it is neither moral nor sensible to congratulate ourselves on our elite schools and universities when so many children leave school ill-equipped to enter adult life. It is in the interests of everyone to have a well-educated, workforce at the heart of a successful, vibrant economy.

George Crivelli: Conservative councils have quietly got on with the job of getting laptops to children who need them

25 Jan

Cllr George Crivelli represents East Putney Ward on Wandsworth Council.

London children are learning from home across the capital. Conservative councils have quietly got on with the job of getting laptops to children who need them. We are determined there should be no digital divide.

In my own borough of Wandsworth, for instance, every single child identified by schools last term, as needing a laptop, has received one – 2,700 so far, with another 800 on the way to meet any further needs this term.

How have we done it in London? Residents, businesses, local and central government, pulled together to help those in need. There are three pillars to our work to tackle digital poverty.

First, councils distributed London’s fair share of the amazing 1 million laptops being provided by the government. Across Hillingdon, Barnet, Kensington and Chelsea, Bexley, Bromley and Wandsworth, we’ve provided around 5,500 laptops through this route.

Schools have been ordering their own devices directly from the government too. In Kensington and Chelsea, for instance, 14 schools have ordered over 300 laptops on top of this.

There were no special favours from the government. All local authorities received this support. But in our boroughs, an old-fashioned mix of motivated council officers and teachers, good logistics and great relationships with our schools, helped get these out quickly.

Second, we harnessed the community spirit of the crisis to go further, getting even more laptops where schools told us they were needed. Wandsworth Council and Battersea Power Station, for example, teamed up to launch ‘Power to Connect’ to refurbish computers for kids. Throughout the pandemic, residents and local businesses have been donating old laptops and tablets. The council itself provided hundreds of retired laptops from a recent IT upgrade. In one of our community centres, a busy team of tech volunteers clean the devices securely and transform them into Chromebooks. These fast devices run like tablets and can be used to access online learning.

Then the council makes sure they get to those who need them. The smiles when our young people receive their laptops make the hard work worth it. We’ve refurbished around 500 computers for kids so far. We were so proud to win the national Tech4Good Award. I know there are similar schemes out there. Barnet is working through the Live Unlimited charity to provide dongles. Kensington and Chelsea has distributed 114 refurbished laptops.

It’s not just devices, of course. Across the capital, when a family says it needs internet access for learning, councils are getting them a wireless dongle or a top-up voucher.

Third, the government recently gave all local authorities special extra funding for children. Councils were given a choice of how to spend this. In Wandsworth, we spent these funds not only on Free School Meals for all eligible children but also on 600 more laptops. Kensington and Chelsea made £260,000 available for schools to buy more laptops. Bexley made funding available for extra laptops for looked after children.

There are media reports in some Labour boroughs of schools without laptops. With the funding and schemes available to well-organised local authorities, residents should be asking their councils what has gone wrong. Our Conservative councils show how to do it. No special favours from government. No sitting back waiting for someone else to fix it. It just takes good government and community spirit.

Alongside our work to support digital inclusion since March 2020 we’ve also been working in many other ways to support our brilliant schools. We’ve worked to provide free wellbeing support to our teachers, secured over 100 nursery places for key worker children, and put together a new council team focused on helping schools with covid testing.

While most children are now studying at home in lockdown, many of the borough’s schools remain open for vulnerable children and those whose parents are key workers. To keep classrooms safe, the council is working closely with our schools to support testing of teachers to help ensure they remain virus free.

Over the Christmas break, the council distributed testing kits to 69 schools across Wandsworth ahead of the anticipated return of pupils. This term we have supported secondary schools to put in place plans to test pupils and staff and have also delivered tests to our maintained nurseries and special schools. We have also supported local testing of our primaries pending national roll out next week. Testing is a major weapon in the fight against Coronavirus ensuring that staff who are not infected can continue teaching. This will help keep pupils safe and schools open.

There’s also been support for catch-up tutoring for pupils during school holidays and free parking for teachers. In Wandsworth, we will continue to do everything in our power to support a quality education for all.

If you have a spare laptop gathering dust, please visit www.powertoconnect.co.uk. At times like this, it is important that communities pull together more than ever. Any support you can give will go to those most in need in the local area and will be greatly appreciated.

Responding to Rashford

15 Jan

We argued yesterday that those losing out most during this pandemic are not those at the bottom of the poverty ladder, but those on the next rung up.  These include a mass of the “just-about-managing”.

Since policy options are necessarily limited, whoever is in goverment, and demand trade-offs between different interests, it isn’t hard to see what the consequences will be when the pandemic abates – and are already.

In sum, the Government can’t avoid making choices that most help those who remain the poorest, or else those who have recently become poorer.

At the moment, it is unsure which to do.  Explaining why this is so also explains why it is on the back foot against Marcus Rashford’s campaigning, and suggests a means of it getting back on the front foot.

New Labour’s original child poverty target in government was to reduce the number of children living in households with less than 60 per cent of median equivalised income.

This measure can have perverse outcomes: for example, if the average income goes up, but the incomes of people lower down the income scale stay as they were, then poverty will be officially recorded as having increased.

“Such a definition means there are more people in “poverty” now than in the 1970s despite decades of material progress,” our columnist, Neil O’Brien, argued in back in 2012 when he was heading up Policy Exchange.

He believed that Labour was conflating fighting poverty with boosting equality, and he was right. In 2015, that target was duly abolished.

Iain Duncan Smith, then Work and Pensions Secretary, wanted to replace it with a new measure – one that would, for example, assess whether poorer children were getting an improved education which would boost their life chances.

But there was none available at the time, so the Government settled for a new duty to report levels of educational attainment, worklessness and addiction.

Which brings us to his former Special Adviser, Philippa Stroud – now Chief Executive of the Legatum Institute, whose work underpinned our piece yesterday, and illustrates the choices that Boris Johnson must now make.

She believes that the Social Metrics Commission (SMC), which she helped to form after leaving government, has cracked the problem and found a definition that will work.

Were the Government to take it up, it would at least be clear what is trying to do when trying to help reduce poverty – which, as matters stand, it doesn’t.

This leaves it vulnerable to every lobby and interest group with its own definition, own campaign and own demand, which may once again seek to blur the difference between tackling poverty and equality.

Stroud has conceded on this site that some “will be nervous about a new measure of poverty, even one that has gained consensus across the political spectrum”.

That Ministers are apprehensive about giving their opponents a stick to beat them with explains the delay in taking up the SMC measure by developing experimental statistics.

But although they are damned if they do, they are also damned if they don’t – as we have seen.  Rashford is moving on from free school meals, and is now tweeting about the forthcoming Universal Credit uplift decision.

Stroud pointed out that maintaining the uplift would assist those on the first rung up of the poverty ladder rather than those at the very bottom.

That might well be the right action to take – but is it where the Government wants to concentrate its anti-poverty efforts?  What are the trade-offs?

Where else might the money go instead?  For example, could it be used exclusively to help to get people into work rather than to assist some people who are already in it?

It’s true that if Ministers have a settled direction in which to steer their ship, those on board will inevitably complain about it.  And the Treasury will want to muddle along.

But if they don’t, the passengers will effectively take control – shouting a mass of conflicting instructions, which those Ministers will then ignore, contradict and surrender to in conflicting measure (if Number Ten doesn’t do it for them).

This is bad for the Government, bad for the Conservative Party – and, above all, bad for those at the bottom end of the ladder, wherever they are situated on it.  Stroud’s advice should be taken without further delay.

Nick Maughan: To shut schools again would inflict further harm on a damaged generation of children.

18 Dec

Nick Maughan is an investor and philanthropist.

In a rapid escalation, four London borough councils have this week backed shutting schools early and switching to online learning. This follows the most disrupted year for education for generations, where children have collectively missed millions of hours of teaching. To shut our schools early again would be a grave mistake, harm the most deprived children and further set back a generation already facing a mountain to climb in a post-pandemic world.

Back in March, when the pandemic began in earnest, there was a case for closing schools. Our understanding of Covid 19 was limited and, had it turned out to have been more deadly amongst younger people than we now know to be the case, it would have been vindicated. However, our understanding of the disease today is greatly improved. There is no longer the justification for shutting schools that we had in March, especially given the lost education children have already experienced.

Speaking earlier this week, the Head of Ofsted, Amanda Spielman, said she believed that many children are “at least six months behind where they should be”. Spielman also pointed out the especially difficult situation of disabled and special needs children, who have struggled with the extra restrictions placed on them by the pandemic. These are the significant problems educational authorities and institutions are already having to deal with. These will be worsened by closing schools.

In many respects, we are fortunate that this tragic pandemic hit in 2020. Modern technology in the form of smartphones, tablets, high-speed internet and top-quality audio-visual equipment is standard. All this has been conducive to establishing an alternative form of schooling that has allowed education to continue in some form. In the 1970s, there simply would have been no education, schools would have closed and that would have been it. For some, learning has been able to continue, even if not in its ideal form.

However, the word ‘some’ is the operative one. Technology is emblematic of the divide between worse and better off pupils. In crude terms, the wealthier children have access to better computers, audio-visual equipment and online resources, in a way that the most deprived children do not. It therefore stands to reason that an early return to online learning, or a late return to school, is going to hit the worst-off children hardest.

In time, programmes could be established that see better provision of higher quality tech for the worst-off children. However, in the here and now it simply isn’t possible to make up for the added disruption to learning which shutting schools would mean. Parents, and most importantly the children themselves, have had enough anxiety and uncertainty to deal with in 2020, it would be especially cruel to add one final dose as the year ends.

In addition to the further educational setbacks shutting schools would entail, we would be adding further to the long-term mental health problems already caused by the pandemic. Children in particular, who have had confidence in their futures shaken, are especially vulnerable. We owe it to them to offer as much stability as possible, and that means keeping schools open.

There are many things that can be done to help the most vulnerable children come back from the educational setbacks this year has inflicted on them. Catch up classes, provision of better technology, incentives for former teachers to help provide more focused tuition for in-need kids. All these measures will be important to help bridge a widening attainment divide. However, none of them can be a sustainable, effective substitute for keeping schools open. That must be the priority above all else.