Frank Young: Educational Long Covid. Why the collapse of schooling over lockdown will haunt the poor for years to come.

3 Nov

Frank Young is Political Director at the Centre for Social Justice

If the Marcus Rashford affair has taught us anything, it is that the Government is in urgent need of a poverty strategy to plug the hole in thinking when emergency measures come in.

Until recently, being Education Secretary was the Cabinet job everyone wanted, and for good reason. Number crunchers at the Department for Work & Pensions worked out some years ago that, for a poor child, failing at school was the number one predictor of staying poor in adult life. It’s as simple as that.

Well before state schools were closed down last spring (with private schools moving almost entirely online), the so-called educational attainment gap persisted as an annual reminder of this particular pathway into future poverty. Disadvantaged pupils are particularly prone to low levels of literacy and numeracy – and this in turn leads to low pay, insecure jobs and unemployment.

If we really want to ‘build back better’ when the pandemic is in the rear view mirror, we will need to tackle educational inequalities of outcome, in much the same way that we need to build houses.

More than half a billion school days have been missed since March, with children from disadvantaged backgrounds having less contact with their teachers and less work marked than wealthier children. In the first month of lockdown, private school children were twice as likely to take part in daily online lessons as those in state school.

The full impact of school closures on children’s outcomes is not yet known, but the closures are likely to have worsened the attainment gap. The exam fiasco over the summer will have further disrupted education for children at a critical time in their studies. This is a form educational Long Covid that will have an impact on already disadvantaged lives for many years to come.

We seemed to have stopped talking about the ‘root causes’ of disadvantage as we chase our tail to lockdown, bail out and subsidise our way out of the pandemic. Any poverty strategy will need to take a long hard look at where the educational disadvantage starts – and that is in the home. Between the ages of four to 16, a typical British child will spend only 15 per cent of their time at school. Damian Hinds got this when he described family life as the last educational “taboo”.

Home environments marked by multiple transitions, disrupted attachment to a parent and frequent conflict increase the likelihood of children displaying externalising behaviour problems, leading to poor engagement and attainment at school.

The experience of lockdown has only increased made the situation worse. In response to the escalating education crisis, we spend £26 on catch-up schemes for every £1 we spend on reducing conflict within families. That’s an argument for increasing the £1 – not decreasing the £26 that is desperately needed.

Our nursery sector is teetering on the brink following an extended, enforced shutdown. It is too soon to tell how many will shut their doors, unable to make running a nursery work but as ever this will hit the poorest hardest. At just 3 years old, disadvantaged children are almost 1.5 years behind their more affluent peers in their early language development.

Once attainment gaps arise, they are hard to close. Children who attend high-quality settings for two to three years are almost eight months ahead of children who attend none. This is exactly where we need to focus a renewed push to tackle poverty and disadvantage.

Schools are receptacles of disadvantage – whether it is a dysfunctional home life or a terrible start in life. We can now predict longer term educational underperformance from the earliest days: when Frank Field looked at this issue he found more than half of children in the bottom 20 per cent of attainment in school at school will remain at the bottom when they take their GCSEs.

As Robert Halfon has said on this website, we need a poverty strategy. The money set aside for catch-up should be rolled into the next spending review to give schools a permanent pot for focused, back-to-basics tuition in literacy and numeracy.

Small is beautiful when it comes to catch up – and we can lock this into our efforts to rebuild from the pandemic. Teachers make the difference, and getting the best teachers into schools with disadvantaged catchments should be a big priority. High-quality teaching is particularly transformative for disadvantaged pupils. Over a school year, these pupils get 1.5 years’ worth of learning with high-quality teachers; they lose half a year’s learning when taught by poorly performing teachers.

Don’t overlook family support, hidden away in the Department for Work & Pensions. The Reducing Parental Conflict programme now has three years of evidence based interventions to stabilise family life. It is much an education issue as it is a poverty issue for the department doleing out welfare payments. We need action now to tackle children going without – but we also need a plan that tackles disadvantage early on.

“Huge concerns”…”I cannot support this policy”…levelling over green fields with concrete”. Tory backbenchers on the Goverment’s housing plans.

9 Oct

“This is not levelling up. It is concreting out,” Bob Seely wrote yesterday morning on this site about the Government’s White Paper on planning reform, and his Commons debate on the subject later in the day.

His article criticised the algorithm that sets out how many houses are needed in which places – which was originally brought to public notice by our columnist Neil O’Brien.

Would Seely’s colleagues agree with him?  Here are some snap extracts from speeches by Conservative backbenchers who spoke yesterday.

  • Theresa May: “We need to reform the planning system….But we will not do that by removing local democracy, cutting the number of affordable homes that are built and building over rural areas. Yet that is exactly what these reforms will lead to.”
  • Philip Hollobone: “The Government are being sent a clear message by Back Benchers today that they have got this wrong and they need to think again.”
  • Jason McCartney: “I have huge concerns about the supposed new housing formula or algorithm. I think we have all had enough of algorithms this year.”
  • Neil O’Brien: “Ministers should fundamentally rethink this formula so that it actually hits the target. Yes, we should build more houses, but we should do it in the right places.”
  • Chris Grayling: “I regret to say that, even as a loyal supporter of the Government, I cannot support this policy in its current form.”
  • Jeremy Hunt: “In short, I am concerned that these proposals do not recognise serious risks…The Government must think again.”
  • Damian Green: “This will not be levelling-up; it will be levelling over green fields with concrete.”
  • Damian Hinds: “I encourage [the Minister] and the Government to think again about some of these important matters.”
  • Caroline Nokes: “The Housing Minister and I were first elected in 2010 on a manifesto that committed to no more top-down housing targets, and this algorithm looks suspiciously like a top-down target.”
  • Geoffrey Clifton-Brown: “The real flaw in the White Paper is that all it does is concentrate building in the south-east and central south of England”.
  • Clare Coutino: “I seriously worry about centrally designed housing numbers which do not take into account a local area’s capacity to deliver.”
  • Luke Evans: “I am also concerned that the formula does not take into account infrastructure, as has been mentioned, or future plans for generations.”
  • Karen Bradley: “How can it be the case that the Government are now considering any form of central target, because that is exactly what the algorithm looks like?”
  • Laurence Robertson: “As things stand, I think that the housing numbers will take precedence. That is wrong and it goes against what we stand for as a party.”
  • Crispin Blunt: “The presentation that the Government have made is potentially catastrophic for delivering the wider objectives of Government policy.”
  • Harriet Baldwin: “Let us move away from the Gordon Brown approach and the top-down imposition of Stalinist housing targets.”
  • Gareth Bacon: “I urge the Government to heed the words of hon. Members in this debate and to revisit the proposals.”
  • Kieran Mullen: “Why are we going down a route that is likely to cause upset and tear up some local decision making when we could tackle the issue through that existing route?”
  • Laura Trott: The White Paper…says that the green belt will be protected, and that is right, but we see no evidence that this is being taken into account in the algorithm.”

That’s 19 backbenchers critical of important aspects of the proposals.

Furthermore, Scott Mann referred diplomatically to “some challenges within the White Paper”; Gareth Johnson said “it is essential that we bring local authorities with us in proposing these targets”; William Wragg wants to ” abandon the notion that planning is something that is done to communities”, and Richard Fuller, while saying that the Government “is on to something”, also said the targets for his local area are unmanageable.

Only James Grundy spoke from the Tory benches without any criticism of the plans.

No wonder that Andy Slaughter, from the Labour benches, gleefully pointed out that “there are 55 Conservative Back Benchers hoping to catch your eye, Madam Deputy Speaker”.

Chris Pincher, the Housing Minister, pointed out that the proposals are out for consultation, and reiterated (as in his recent ConservativeHome article) that “over the past two months my Department has actively engaged with the sector and is listening to feedback. Many right hon. and hon. Members will know that I too have been listening and discussing carefully”.

In short, he was distancing himself and the Government from the algorithm numbers.  But we think it worth grabbing some highlights from yesterday’s speeches because, on this showing, opposition on the Tory benches is not confined to the algorithm.  Ministers will find a central feature of their plans, top-down housing targets for local authorities, very difficult to get through the Commons, at least as presently constituted.