Robert Halfon: Covid has exacerbated educational inequalities. Schools need more autonomy to improve outcomes.

16 Jun

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.

James Frayne: What voters and parents think about last week’s Covid education row

8 Jun

James Frayne is Director of Public First and author of Meet the People, a guide to moving public opinion.

The Government has pledged over £3 billion to help pupils recover from their disrupted education, including £1.4 billion announced last week. But this wasn’t enough for the Education Recovery Commissioner Sir Kevan Collins who resigned claiming far more was needed.

Some others have said the same. How will this affect the Government politically? What do parents want? What do voters want? How will this row play out in public?

My agency Public First has just conducted an opinion research project into all this for the Centre for Policy Studies. The research comprised a poll of parents and another of the general public, as well as a series of focus groups of parents across the country. In the research, we found the following:

  • Parents definitely are worried about their children’s academic progress: 48 per cent of parents overall said they worried their children had fallen behind, with working class parents particularly concerned (54 per cent of parents from a C2 background expressed this concern). In the focus groups, while parents were often likely to raise concerns about their children’s mental health/ happiness first, they tended to dwell more on academic issues.
  • Given a range of options – offering parents the chance to air concerns about both the both the academic and social effects the pandemic had had on their children – parents were much more concerned about the academic effects. 62 per cent of parents said their child had fallen behind in maths (the top answer). While “social skills” came joint second with science subjects, academic concerns were higher across this question than social concerns.
    44 per cent of parents said they worried their children’s prospects have been negatively affected.
  • Most parents thought it would take up to two years for their children to catch up. The focus groups revealed parents with less money and lower education levels were less confident about their roles in helping their children catch up.
  • Asked who is to “blame” for children falling behind, most parents blame “the pandemic” rather than the Government. (This is in line with attitudes towards the pandemic generally and has been since last March).
  • In focus groups, while parents were sympathetic to the idea that the least-affluent children should receive particular support in a catch-up period, they were hostile to the idea their own children should receive no support; parents wanted a general national catch-up plan.
  • Given a range of policy options the Government might take to help children catch up, free hours with a private tutor is the most popular; interestingly, longer school holidays to give children more fun in the summer was opposed by parents and the public.
  • Given a range of policy areas the public might accept higher personal taxes to fund, helping schools help children catch up was the most popular option.

You can read the full tables here.

What does all this mean politically? We need to consider two points to help us evaluate this properly. First, most opinion research suggests the public are primarily concerned about the economy and the NHS; education is at least somewhat less important to most people. There is a danger in very focused, sector-based polling that you obsess about what’s directly in front of you; we need to be clear that education is important – vitally so to many parents – but it’s not jobs and hospitals.

Second, the public are fearful about the future state of the economy and currently oppose tax rises, preferring to see the Government rely on borrowing.

Collins’ resignation amid demands for many billions more in funding therefore shouldn’t immediately cause the Government massive political problems with most of the public. However, it has unquestionably raised the medium-term political stakes for the Government. The resignation has ensured that a light will be shone on every aspect of the Government’s planning and execution of the catch-up programme. In other words, there will be no hiding place for the Government; it has to deliver.

Just because education doesn’t worry most people in a pandemic as much as the economy and healthcare, it doesn’t mean it’s not a vitally important policy area. We know that it is viewed as vital – and we also know from our research that the public are very clear how and why their children have fallen behind and where they’d like to see the Government focus their attention during catch-up. The public ultimately want the Government to help children recover academically – in the most serious subjects. This could not have been clearer.

The Government has clearly decided it hasn’t got the money for a longer school day – or at least, that it wouldn’t deliver the benefits that it would cost; against those other spending pressures like the NHS it is probably right. Everything therefore hinges now on the effective delivery – and probably significant expansion – of a proper tutoring programme. And the Government needs to start getting some credit for it; when we did focus groups, only one person even knew tutoring was happening and no one knew the Government was pouring billions into making it happen. It should be shouting about this from the rooftops, and make sure that parents know what their child is entitled to.

Rehman Chisti: Levelling up isn’t just about geography. It must be focused on education, skills and opportunity for all.

30 Apr

Rehman Chishti is MP for Gillingham and Rainham, and previously served as the Prime Minister’s Special Envoy for Freedom of Religion or Belief (2019-20).

In July 2019, the Prime Minister stood on the steps of Downing Street promising to “level up across Britain”. In short, his mission was to boost economic performance across the UK, with a particular focus on “left behind” areas, often outside of London and the South East.

As an MP in the South East, it is often assumed that I represent an affluent area that requires no extra help from government. However, this simply isn’t the case. Medway, the unitary authority for my constituency of Gillingham and Rainham, is in the top 22 per cent of the most deprived areas for education in England and in the top 10 per cent of most deprived areas with regards to crime.

Within Gillingham and Rainham itself there are stark differences. In Rainham Central, 6.1 per cent of children were recorded as living in poverty in 2018-19. Just a couple of miles away in Gillingham North, this figure is 39.3 per cent.

If the Government truly wants to level up the entire United Kingdom, it must not just focus on the areas traditionally seen as “left behind”. Good quality education for all must be the core component of our levelling up agenda, within an aspirational Conservative approach.

The phrase levelling up means different things to different people. To me, it represents opportunity. I came to this country at the age of six without being able to speak a word of English. I attended a failing secondary high school and a grammar school, and as I came from a modest background, I had to balance my A-Level studies with a part-time job, like many students do across the country.

I was the first in my family to go to university, where I read Law and subsequently qualified as a barrister at age 24, prior to being elected as a Conservative MP at 31.

In our great country, you should be able to be whatever you want through hard work, perseverance, and determination. We in politics must ensure the UK is a land of opportunity for all, where children have access to the finest possible education and can have the best opportunities in life.

As a product of grammar schools, I know the transformational impact these can have on students. From the age of 16 to 18, I attended Rainham Mark Grammar School and the Chatham Grammar School for Girls mixed sixth form. To those from modest backgrounds, a grammar school offers another opportunity to realise their full academic potential. This is true for children who already have good grades, but also for those who have not distinguished themselves academically.

In fact, Department for Education data shows that grammar schools improve educational results among all pupils, especially those who previously struggled and had low attainment. An astounding 93 per cent of pupils in grammar schools achieve a good “pass” in English and Maths at GCSE, more than double the average for state secondaries.

Not surprisingly, grammar schools are extremely popular, with two-thirds of schools at or over capacity as of 2019 – more than four times the average of state funded secondaries.

Levelling up starts with education, and I believe that a key part of this agenda must be to allow the creation of new grammar schools and expansion of existing ones across the country.

Making university accessible and fair for everyone will also play a vital role in levelling up the country. As the first in my family to go to university, I know just how important it is that everyone has the opportunity to do so. The previous Labour government’s target of 50 per cent of the population to go to university was misguided.

However, we must ensure that everyone who wants to go to university is able to do so regardless of financial means. At the same time, the abilities of all young people must be realised, whether that’s through university, or vocational qualifications and high-level apprenticeships in fields like hydrogen energy, as offered in my constituency. The increase in tuition fees last decade has not deterred people from applying to university. However, pupils from wealthier backgrounds are still more likely to go to university than those from poorer backgrounds.

While the average debt of those who graduated in 2019 was £40,000, most students are not expected to pay back their full student loan. Therefore, any reforms to higher education funding must be targeted and help those most in need. Simply lowering tuition fees or reducing interest rates across the board would in fact help the highest earning graduates the most.

Instead, the Government should look to reintroduce maintenance grants of up to £5,000 per year for those from low income backgrounds, with the amount awarded based on the family income of the student, so the lower the family income of the student, the more they would receive.

Having spoken with local university leaders, including Professor Jane Harrington, Vice-Chancellor at the University of Greenwich (which has a campus in Medway), the reintroduction of maintenance grants would provide vital financial security to low income students. It would allow them to focus further on their studies, rather than the part-time jobs that they currently must take to support themselves financially. This is especially important now considering the disruption to their learning that students have faced during Covid-19.

If we look at the Turing Scheme, for example, disadvantaged students can receive up to £490 per month in grants to support their costs when they study abroad. Over twelve months, this would amount to £5,880 in grants. If disadvantaged students can receive grants to help with costs studying abroad, it is only right that they are able to receive them when they study here in the UK.

If we use £5,000 as an average figure of the grant, this reform would reduce debt on those students after a three-year degree by around £15,000. Rewarding hard work is exactly what we as Conservatives should stand for.

Improving and widening access to foreign languages will help the UK level up, while at the same time promoting the Global Britain agenda. I believe that everyone in this country should learn at least one foreign language as a child. This principle was recognised by the Government in 2011 with the introduction of the English Baccalaureate, a mandatory component of which is a foreign language.

At the moment, we are unfortunately still far from reaching that ambition: only 32 per cent of young people in the UK say they can read and write in more than one language, compared with 91 per cent in Germany and 80 per cent across the EU.

And, the situation is not improving; the number of pupils taking a language diminishes year-on-year. As a 2015 report from Cambridge University makes clear, this is no small issue: a lack of language skills not only threatens UK companies’ competitiveness abroad, but limits the UK’s soft power on the international stage.

With the introduction of T-Levels, now would be a brilliant time to integrate language learning into vocational and technical qualifications, ensuring more of our young people, regardless of their academic pathway and achievement, learn at least one other language.

In an increasingly digital economy, levelling up education also means giving all our young people technical skills that will allow them to participate and thrive in a digital world. Over the last year, we saw just how reliant we are on technology, which enabled many people to work from home during the pandemic. Now more than ever, it is critical that students are equipped with appropriate IT and coding skills, with a focus on new technologies such as artificial intelligence.

The Government has already taken major steps towards this, with the introduction of computing as a subject at all levels of schooling up to Key Stage 3, teaching children essential skills in computer science and coding.

However, much remains to be done as the number of pupils taking computing or ICT at GCSE level has been declining over the past five years, while a worrying gender gap has opened up, with only 21.4 per cent of GCSE computing entries are from women and girls. The problem is an urgent one: research by McKinsey & Company shows that by 2030, two thirds of the UK workforce (21 million people) could be lacking in basic digital skills, severely damaging UK business competitiveness.

We must look to expand the number of pupils that learn essential IT skills and coding, taking inspiration from successful international examples, from Estonia to Arkansas. As Asa Hutchinson, the Governor of Arkansas, put it: “Whether you’re looking at manufacturing and the use of robotics or the knowledge industries, they need computer programmers… If we can’t produce those workers, we’re not going to be able to attract and keep the industry we want.”

Alongside improving IT skills, equipping students with stronger critical thinking skills is key to allowing them to adapt to the challenging world we live in. Having seen the dangers that disinformation and misinformation can pose when intentionally spread by individuals, organisations or hostile states, as happened with the storming of the US Capitol building in January 2021 or with misleading claims about the Covid-19 vaccination, it is vital that young people are equipped to spot false information online.

Finland, for example, has integrated information literacy and critical thinking across its national curriculum. The result has been that Finland is ranked first out of 35 European countries in its ability to resist fake news (the UK is currently ranked 10th).

At the moment, our schools already teach British values to help prevent radicalisation and extremism. However, countering the spread of dangerous disinformation and misinformation is one of the next big challenges that we as a country face to protect against social disorder which could also undermine our democratic institutions. It is vital that we teach these skills early in schools so that young people can help stop the spread of false information.

If we are to truly level up across the country, education must be at the centre of the Government’s strategy and areas like the South East and Medway must be taken into account. Prior to 2010, all three Medway constituencies were represented by Labour MPs. Since then, we have secured sizeable majorities. If the Conservatives are to continue representing areas such as this, the Government cannot forget them. We must not level down the South East in pursuit of levelling up other areas of the country.

With the Queen’s Speech next month and as we emerge from Covid-19 restrictions, now is the time for a bold agenda from Government which levels up the entire country and equips young people with the necessary tools to face the modern challenges in the world. Improving education is a vital part of this, whether through reforming student finance, expanding grammar schools, improving foreign language teaching, or a greater emphasis on critical thinking and IT skills in schools to help counter disinformation and misinformation.

Mark Lehain: Education after the pandemic. Keep calm – and carry on as we were.

25 Mar

Mark Lehain is the founder and former Principal of Bedford Free School.

Whilst some argue about what Covid has changed for good, for most of us the pandemic has just confirmed what we already thought. It’s no different when we look at discussions around schools either.

The issues being pushed at the moment under the “Covid changes everything” banner are the same as those being pushed by the educational establishment before: Ofsted and performance tables are awful; we should trust teachers to assess pupils for exams; GCSEs set kids up to fail; the curriculum crushes creativity. They’re the same things we have heard for decades, but dressed up in a shiny new corona wrapping.

One worrying shift is apparent though. We expect this kind of thing from the teaching unions and Simon Jenkins, but these demonstrably bad ideas have gained traction with some  who should know better. This includes people in the Conservative Party who should be more aware than most of the reasons for the successes in schools since 2010.

In addition, we need to be honest and admit that it is still too soon to know what, if any, major changes are needed, as we have limited hard evidence of the type and size of impact the pandemic has had on children and schools.

This will come in time, but right now we are largely being guided by anecdotes and educated assumptions, and these are inevitably influenced by our own prejudices – so we should proceed with caution.

What do these anecdotes and assumptions suggest right now? Well, attendance is much better than feared by some, and teachers are reporting how pleased their colleagues and pupils are to be back. Kids generally like school, and staff trusted their leaders to get them back safely.

In terms of learning, there do appear to be big gaps between what children know and can do versus where they’d normally be by now. This gap varies between family, class, school and region – depending on how hard they were hit by things during the past year, and the support at home for learning.

This is not remotely surprising – but we shouldn’t overreact and conclude that it all has to be addressed this year or next. For most children, it is going to be a marathon and not a sprint.

More time in school – be it longer days or longer terms – may be part of the solution, but only if the quality of what is going on is good, and if pupils are able to make the most of it. Our littlest children need to flop at the end of the day, and parents don’t want their kids cramming morning, noon, and night – additional schooling should be a mixture of the academic with the social and the physical.

That said, some things are more urgent when we look at the youngest and oldest pupils.

By now four, five, and six year-olds would normally be well on their way with, or have mastered, their phonics. They’d have discovered the joys of reading for themselves, and experienced that wonderful escape velocity moment when they can learn independently from books.

Lots will have cracked this at home with their family or during their spells in school, but too many won’t have. This needs to be a priority for a while before they can move on to learning everything else.

At the upper end of school, students who have been studying for GCSEs, BTECs and A-levels etc have missed huge chunks of their courses. So as well as ensuring Year 11 and Year 13s get grades this summer and can smoothly move to their next destination, we have to think hard about those in Years 10 and 12 who will sit exams in summer 2022. Given the time lost and gaps created, it is going to take a while to get back to “normal” in this regard.

Importantly, this is not a case for scrapping GCSEs. The chaos last summer, and possible repeat this year, shows exactly why exams that are externally set and externally marked are the fairest way to assess what people know and can do. We’re already hearing cases of pushy parents leaning on schools to bump up grades – why would we move to a system where this was business as usual?

Also, the UK is unusual in that loads and loads of students move around at 16; we need reliable exam grades at this point, to tell us what they know and can do, but also to help them get onto the right course, apprenticeship, or job.

More generally, just as the Government was only able to fund all the interventions we’ve seen because it sorted out the public finances after 2010, I think there is a case to be made that generally our school system was in a better position to address the pandemic challenges because of the reforms since then.

There is really interesting anecodotal evidence that the good academy trusts developed in the last decade have generally done the best job of supporting their staff, pupils, and families. They didn’t wait for the Department for Education, and got on with procuring laptops for kids, PPE for staff, or running extended days and term times last summer.

Add to this too many stories about local authorities leaving their remaining schools floundering between a rock and a hard place, and I’m even more convinced we need to finish the job when it comes to academisation.

Elsewhere, changes at Ofsted in recent years mean that it isn’t so reliant on SATs or GCSE grades for inspections – so they’re in a better position to get back into schools and see how they’re doing, especially in regards to pupils safety.

As for the siren calls to stop measuring what kids know and assessing instead “wellbeing” or “creativity” – it’s a false dichotomy: the way you make kids happy, healthy and creative is by ensuring all schools are safe and orderly places of learning, and that children experience a well-planned, knowledge-rich curriculum that exposes them to the best that’s been thought said & done – across the humanities, science, art, music, drama, technology – as well as english and maths.

Reading great literature is better for wellbeing than poorly-planned mindfulness sessions; quality P.E. is better for one’s mood than cod psychology; and end-of-course exams are less stressful than the endless pressure of coursework and “portfolio evidence gathering.”

So until and unless new evidence emerges to the contrary, what our children and schools actually need is for everyone to keep calm and carry on. We need schools to get back to doing what they were before the pandemic struck. That work was narrowing the gaps then, and with a concerted effort and greater focus, it can do so even quicker again now. Anything else is a distraction, and will hold back most those whose need is greatest.

Robert Halfon: Patriotism is important to people – whatever the liberal elite thinks – and there’s nothing wrong with that

24 Mar

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.

Pride and Prejudice

I have tended not to engage in the cultural wars raging at the moment. This is, in part, because I have been focused on education and Covid and, second, because I remember the words of a close friend, “You don’t need to don your armour for every battle.”

However, the skirmish over our Union flag and the sneering about ministers’ flag displays from BBC presenters really got my goat.

I remember some years ago (pre-2010) when I was a parliamentary candidate, a BBC journalist came to visit Harlow. I happened to show him a leaflet I was sending to residents, containing some key campaign messages about cutting the cost of living and the like. The front of the postcard displayed my face superimposed on a Union flag. The reporter looked at my leaflet in absolute horror and questioned whether I was pandering to the far-right. Completely gobsmacked, I replied how on earth can a leaflet with our national flag be seen as any way promoting racism?

I never forgot this moment because, to me, it symbolised all too clearly that so many of the London professional classes were out of touch with the decent patriotism and pride of most citizens. The infamous 2014 “Rochester” Tweet by Shadow Cabinet member Emily Thornberry served as another example.

In many overseas countries, I have seen flags proudly displayed on government buildings and in ministers’ offices. No one raises so much as an eyebrow. Yet, when ministers choose to do so in this country, this is something to be mocked and laughed at.

The reason I care about this is because I think the knocking and disdain for our flag by the “liberal elite”, is a small example of the gulf between their views and those of millions of voters – and one of a number of reasons why so many voters turned against Labour.

Far from being the first refuge of the scoundrel, patriotism is an anchor that roots all of us in our communities and provides stability and cohesiveness from one generation to the next. Pride before prejudice.

Schools Disgrace

Over the past week, horrific allegations have emerged about sexual abuse, assault, harassment and “a culture of rape” (predominantly conducted by male students and directed towards females) in certain leading private schools. At the time of writing, over 5,500 testimonies from current and former pupils have been documented on the “Everyone’s Invited” website.

Even worse, it appears that school staff have not always taken adequate action upon learning of allegations (until it reached the media). At first, it looked like this was confined to one or two schools. Now, it seems this problem is much more widespread. As I write, a state school in Lincolnshire has hit the press because of students sharing abhorrent rape “jokes” online.

There must be a national inquiry led by the Department for Education or Ofsted to establish exactly what has gone on, the scale of the abuse and how the failings of protection of female pupils, of care and safeguarding have gone unchecked.

It is my view that Ofsted should inspect all schools – public or private – rather than having different inspection regimes. These schools, some with a great history, should be ashamed that they have allowed these things such abuse and harassment to occur, letting down so many of their pupils, without repercussions for the perpetrators.


Over the years, I have tried to explain my own definition of Conservatism to (extremely patient) ConservativeHome readers. It usually involves the phrases “ladder of opportunity” or “The Workers’ Party”.

Given the upcoming local elections, I would like to propose a challenge to readers: how do you explain what Conservatism means on the doorstep?  In other words, if a resident asks you while canvassing, “what is it to be a Conservative”, what is your reply?

The only conditions are that your answer:

  • cannot mention Brexit;
  • must not be more than two sentences; and
  • must also pass the Ronseal Test (i.e. it does what it says on the tin).

Comment below. With JRR Tolkien Day on Thursday, it seems only appropriate that the winner will receive a Tolkien novel.

Aidan Shilson-Thomas: Parliament failed to monitor pandemic preparation in the run-up to Covid

22 Mar

Aidan Shilson-Thomas is a Senior Researcher at Reform.

Calls for the inevitable Covid-19 Public Inquiry have started to come in. Rightly, government will face some difficult questions: why was planning so narrowly focused on influenza, should lockdown have happened earlier, why was track and trace so slow to get off the ground?

These are important questions, and we should expect honest answers. Yet, there’s another question that isn’t being asked: when successive governments were failing to get on top of pandemic preparedness, where was Parliament?

One of Parliament’s first duties is “to check and challenge the work of Government (scrutiny)” – it says so on its website. There can be little more important than ensuring that the UK and its citizens are protected from the risks we face.

Since the pandemic started, Parliament has scrutinised the Government’s every move. Not only has the health response been picked apart, but MPs and committees have looked at how departments like Justice and Education have responded to impacts in their areas. The Public Accounts Committee has also examined the whole-of-government response. Providing lessons are acted on, these inquiries will help ensure we are better prepared for the next pandemic. But one of those lessons must be that Parliamentary interest came too late.

Before Covid-19, Parliament – like government and, indeed, much of the world – took its eye off the ball. The last report on pandemic influenza by a Select Committee was published in 2009, a follow up to the second most recent report, which was published in 2005.

More than a decade later, many of the impacts of a pandemic that were worst feared have come to pass. Had Parliament scrutinised pandemic preparedness more closely, the inadequacies of the UK’s planning and capabilities may not have gone so woefully unchecked.

This isn’t just true of pandemic preparedness, either. The UK faces a number of risks that could have far-reaching and serious impacts for the country – from widespread “electrical failure” to severe “space weather”, both listed in the National Risk Register. Yet despite some proactive scrutiny of high-likelihood risks such as flooding, and of the government machinery for handling emergencies, oversight is patchy and irregular.

A step change in the UK’s approach to preparing for future crises will require action at every level of government, the institutions that hold it to account, and society. Parliament is no exception.

That is why Reform is today calling for a new Civil Contingencies Select Committee, dedicated solely to scrutinising government’s resilience capabilities. It would challenge the government of the day on how ready it is to respond to the risks facing the country; review the quality of risk assessments, planning, and capabilities; and hold ministers to account.

Had this been in place years ago, questions might have been asked about the narrow focus on an influenza pandemic. The 2017 National Risk Register did not recognise an emerging infectious disease as having pandemic potential, saying one could “potentially lead to up to 100 fatalities.” The Committee would also have probed how far independent expertise was being brought in to challenge such assumptions.

It would have discovered before the pandemic hit that the Department for Education had no plans for the national cancellation of exams, and that the Treasury had not made plans for having to shut great swathes of the economy. Yet, both these things were foreseeable pandemic impacts.

We can’t expect existing committees to add this task to their already significant workload. They are busy enough scrutinising government’s normal business, without also having to worry about things that may or may not happen. As we have seen at a ministerial and senior official level, pressing day-to-day issues will always take priority. State resilience must be given its own focus to ensure it is never again neglected.

What’s more, the singular departmental focus of most existing committees is entirely unfit for considering cross-government risks. If the pandemic has shown us anything, it is that the consequences of a crisis are not contained within neat departmental boundaries. The knock-on impacts of Covid-19 on the economy and education have been devastating, and the effects will be felt long after masks and social distancing have disappeared.

Drawing the membership of this new committee from across existing select committees would help break this siloed approach and make clear that resilience is a job for all of government.

Once the Government has moved a motion in Parliament to make this happen, it needs to give the Committee the necessary access to carry out its vital work. For too long, government’s resilience efforts have been shrouded in secrecy, so much so that even Parliament hadn’t seen the findings of Exercise Cygnus until they were leaked. Government needs to move from “need to know” to “need to share”, thus enabling Parliament to hold up its end of the bargain.

Public Inquiries have their place – they bring accountability, some closure, and some lesson learning – but they can also take many years to complete and become marred by finger pointing. Their findings could come too late even for the next pandemic. When risks are continuously changing, government’s preparedness, and Parliament’s scrutiny, must be constant.

Parliament must live up to its responsibility to hold the executive to account for keeping the people safe. The Civil Contingencies Select Committee would be a major step forwards to ensuring the failures of Covid-19 are not repeated.

The DfE has thrown everything but the kitchen sink at school reopenings. But the perennial problem is communication.

25 Feb

With little over a week to go before schools reopen, Gavin Williamson has been busy trying to persuade all parties concerned that it’s safe to go back.

Yesterday at a Downing Street press conference, he outlined plans for schools in England. One of the Government’s biggest moves is a “pandemic package” of extra funding to help pupils catch up with all the learning they have missed during the course of 2020/21.

The Government will fund £700 million in total for England, with a £302 million Recovery Premium dedicated towards state and primary schools. This is designed to help schools support disadvantaged students in whatever way they think is best – whether that’s additional clubs and activities, or something else.

The other huge development is that A-Level and GCSE results in England this year will be decided by predicted grades (teachers deciding pupils’ exam results, based on a combination of mock exams, coursework and essays). More on that later.

As for safety, face masks will not be compulsory in schools, but “highly recommended”, and Nick Gibb, the education minister, said he hoped the majority of students would volunteer to have Coronavirus testing twice a week. Secondary schools and colleges are also allowed to stagger reopenings on March 8 to get testing in order.

The DfE has gone to huge efforts to try and get schools running again. It is trying to pre-empt every criticism that has been levelled at the Government during the pandemic, from schools not having enough tests to concerns about how far behind pupils are, which will be addressed with mass testing and after-school classes, respectively.

One of the toughest challenges for the Government has been deciding how to mark grades. It cannot win, whichever route it takes. When it used an algorithm over the summer – designed by Ofqual – to decide GCSEs and A Levels, this led to huge outrage about exam results. But predicted grades aren’t perfect either. When the Government switched to them after the Ofqual furore, it led to grade inflation (last year a total of 76 per cent of GCSE results were a grade 4 or above compared to 67.1 per cent in 2019).

Williamson said 2021’s predicted grades will be “fair to every student”, and Gibb promised “the best system possible to ensure there is consistency and fairness in how teachers submit grades for their students.” But you sense that it’ll be another troublesome summer for the Government.

Add to that it is already dealing with increasing calls to bump teachers up the vaccine queue. These will only grow after Germany announced it was doing this (even in spite of its terrible difficulties rolling out the vaccine, which make it no model to follow). 

Although the UK government’s scientific advisers have repeatedly spelled out the rationale for the vaccine order, it has been hard to compete with the likes of Tony Blair (who has also called for teacher prioritisation) and everyone else who has suddenly decided they’re an epidemiologist.

Overall, the Government’s biggest problem has always been communication. Up against a vocal opposition – that’s the teaching unions, not Labour – Williamson has struggled to make the case for keeping schools open (and it is a strong one).

As I wrote in November for ConservativeHome, one way the Government could have moved its plans forward is by using an independent taskforce in the way it did for vaccines (with Kate Bingham in charge). I also wrote that “it would be wrong to assume that the issue of closures has now been settled for good” – at a time when public attitudes to school reopenings actually improved.

Likewise, despite the speedy roll out of the vaccines and a palpable excitement about the Government’s roadmap to easing lockdown, one senses that the problems with school reopenings are far from over.

Miriam Cates: Re-opening our schools to all children is vital for their emotional, social and academic development

24 Feb

Miriam Cates is MP for Penistone & Stocksbridge.

I wholeheartedly welcome the Prime Minister’s announcement that our schools will re-open to all children on March 8. As a former teacher and a mother of three, I know just how important it is to get our young people back in the classroom, and it’s absolutely right that the Government is prioritising the welfare of our children in the roadmap out of Covid restrictions.

When coronavirus first hit our shores a year ago, we knew little about its impact on young people and as a precaution, schools were closed to all children except those who are vulnerable or have key worker parents. In January, the infectiousness of the new variant and intense pressure on our hospitals sadly meant that schools were shut again to most children.

However, the situation has now changed substantially. Firstly, unlike last year we know that Covid poses almost no risk to children’s health. Secondly we have now vaccinated 20 million of those most vulnerable to serious illness, greatly reducing the risks of the disease to the population as a whole. Infection rates continue to fall, and so the potential benefits of keeping schools closed are now outweighed by the serious negative impacts on our children.

We are becoming increasingly aware of the many different ways in which children have been affected by school closures. Despite enormous efforts by schools to adapt to online leaning, and over 1.3 million devices supplied by the Government, virtual lessons are no long-term substitute for being in school. Primary school children have struggled to access classwork unsupervised (I know this from experience) and even for secondary school children, it is very challenging to make meaningful academic progress online.

Lost time in the classroom has had an impact on children’s attainment. There has been a lot of focus on the effects of school closures on students in examination years, and the pandemic has brought uncertainty and anxiety to both this and last year’s GCSE and A Level cohorts. But academic disruption also has a serious impact on younger children; any delays in learning to read, write and add up can have knock-on effects for a child’s whole school career.

That’s why I’m delighted that Sir Kevan Collins has been appointed by the Prime Minister and Gavin Williamson, the Education Secretary, to work on our national catch-up programme, and I welcome the significant commitments already announced last year, including a £1.3bn catch up support fund, and that today the Government has set out a further £400m plan to help young people catch up on lost learning due to the pandemic.

This builds on £300m announced in January for existing tutoring and catch-up plans to help all our children get back on track with a boost to their learning. Importantly, this will include opportunities for music, sport and outdoor activities, in recognition that our children have missed out on so much more than the ‘three Rs’.

It is becoming increasingly evident that school closures have not just affected children’s learning, being away from the school environment has also had a big impact on wellbeing.

Our schools offer vastly more than just academic education; it’s the holistic experience of school, especially interacting with others, that gives children motivation and a sense of purpose, and prepares them for successful adult life. As a mother, it has been painful to see my children missing out on their education, but what has been far more heart-breaking is to watch them becoming demotivated, less active and lonely.

My kids have had it easy compared to many, and the damaging effects of lockdown on children are emerging every day with reports of increases in eating disorders, mental health problems and self-harm. This is why I welcome the Prime Minister’s decision to prioritise the return to school ahead of all other measures in the roadmap he announced on Monday. As he rightly said, all the evidence shows that the best place for our young people to be is in the classroom.

I know there will be some who are concerned about how re-opening schools may affect Covid transmission rates, and it is right to take necessary precautions to make sure we don’t see a return to the rapid rises in cases that led to the current lockdown.

As children return to school from March 8, secondary school and college students will take three lateral flow Covid tests, with primary school teachers continuing to take two tests a week. Secondary school and college pupils will be provided with two home tests every week.

Testing regimes have already been set up across all education settings. A few weeks ago, I visited Ecclesfield School in my constituency, where soldiers from 21 Engineer Regiment were training teachers and support staff to deliver rapid testing in the school’s sports hall. Across the country over four million tests have already been conducted in schools, colleges, and universities. These measures will reduce the risks of transmission between teachers and pupils within schools and in the wider community, maximising the safety of all educational settings.

Re-opening our schools to all children could not be more vital for their emotional, social and academic development. We must now focus all our efforts on recovery with a catch-up programme that gives every young person the opportunity to succeed.

Robert Halfon: Extending the school day would help children catch up after Covid – and civil society can step in

10 Feb

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.

It is encouraging that it appears, for the Department of Education, nothing is off the table when it comes to the post-Covid schools and colleges recovery programme: the school year, examinations, curriculum are all the things that, no doubt, are being considered. Will the A.C. (After Coronavirus) period lead to radical thinking or merely some incremental change?

Extending the summer term for a couple of weeks, is just that – incremental. Two or three extra weeks of teaching, while helping pupils a little, will not fundamentally rectify the lost learning and the catch-up that is needed.

One more radical option would be to extend the school day, either before or after traditional start and finish times. This is not to say teachers must work longer hours (unless properly recompensed), but, instead, civil society organisations should be invited in, to offer pupils professional mental health support, as well as sports activities and academic catch-up tuition.

It will be a virtuous circle. From a health perspective, we know that one in three primary school age children is overweight or obese, and that children living in the most deprived areas are almost twice as likely to be obese than those living in the least deprived areas. This is hugely costly: physical inactivity among today’s young people is estimated to cost £53.3 billion during their lifetimes. Boosting opportunities for children to engage in sports will be crucial if we are to embed healthy lifestyles early on.

There is also an established link between physical activity and better mental health. Children and young people who participate in in-school sports clubs are 20 per cent less likely to suffer from a mental health disorder. Girls are 25 per cent less likely to be at risk of anxiety and 11 per cent less likely to self-harm. This is critical given that a YoungMinds survey of 2,036 young people with a history of mental health needs, found that 80 per cent of those children had said the pandemic has made their mental health worse.

Moreover, in 2017, DCMS found that underachieving young people who participated in extra-curricular activities linked to sport increased their numeracy skills, on average, by 29 per cent above those who did not participate in sport.

The Education Endowment Foundation looked at the benefits of extended school hours and noted: “The evidence indicates that, on average, pupils make two additional months’ progress per year from extended school time and in particular through the targeted use of before and after school programmes. There is some evidence that disadvantaged pupils benefit more, making closer to three months’ additional progress. There are also often wider benefits for low-income students, such as increased attendance at school, improved behaviour, and better relationships with peers.”

According to a study by the Royal London Hospital (published in the British Medical Journal), the most dangerous time for under-16s is after school, between 4pm and 6pm, when they are most likely to become a victim of knife crime. Approximately half of under-16 stabbings take place during this time.

With so many young people socially isolated from their usual networks of friends, teachers and support staff in lockdown, and having lost out on their learning, extending the school day in this way would be enormously beneficial in every sense.

Of course, there will be those who immediately say that it is impossible – the unions won’t wear it. Well some schools and colleges are already doing it. Even before the pandemic, 70 to 80 per cent of independent schools operate an extended school day, usually offering a programme of extra-curricular activities. It’s also worth noting that 39 per cent of academy schools founded before 2010 also have extended school hours. Others may want to do it.

Moreover, if civil society organisations with expertise in mental health, sports and tuition step in, there is no pressure placed on teachers and support staff. Dallaglio Rugby Works is an outstanding example of an established charity that places rugby coaches in schools for excluded pupils. Coaches lead weekly small groups of eight to 10 young people and support them to develop their soft skills, increase their engagement with school, and make more informed choices about their careers. Their outcomes cannot be ignored: 82 per cent of their young people are in education, employment or training 12 months after leaving school.

Extending the school day could be piloted in certain areas – perhaps starting in places with significant levels of disadvantage – to see if the extra hours help make a difference to pupils’ health and wellbeing, their engagement in the classroom during normal school hours and their academic attainment. If we want to really make a difference, to repair the damage of the last year, there is no time to waste.

We need to be much more ambitious for our children’s learning. The language of catch-up shouldn’t stigmatise children and we must be careful not to tar them with the brush of “left-behind children” during the pandemic. Instead, our language should be positive, framed in terms of “moving forward”. Catch-up alone shouldn’t just be our ambition. Let’s hope the Government uses this opportunity to set out a real long-term plan for education and change what is necessary in order to conserve what is best.

Robert Halfon: The levelling-up ladder risks being knocked away by Covid-inspired decisions on education

13 Jan

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.

Last week, having previously advised that schools would remain open – that the risk to children was low, that classrooms were safe and that closures had a marginal effect on transmission – the Government decided to reach a consensus with the education unions and shut school doors. At the same time, the decision to go ahead with exams was scrapped and pupils will now, for the second year in a row, be under a system of centre-assessed grades.

As pointed out by Department for Education (DfE) Ministers on a call with MPs just two weeks ago, one of the most senior CMO officials said:

“There is no evidence younger children transmit the new strain of the virus at the same rate as adults, and there is no evidence the new strain of the virus causes more serious illness in either children or adults” .

A statement on January 2 from the Royal College of Paediatricians and Child Health (RCPCH) noted:

“Children’s wards are usually busy in winter. As of now, we are not seeing significant pressure from Covid-19 in paediatrics across the UK. As cases in the community rise there will be a small increase in the number of children we see with Covid-19, but the overwhelming majority of children and young people have no symptoms or very mild illness only. The new variant appears to affect all ages and, as yet, we are not seeing any greater severity amongst children and young people.”

Conservative MPs were also told by the DfE about a recent study by Public Health England, which concluded that:

“School closures would have only a minor and temporary effect on transmission rates, and the wider impact of this on children’s social, physical, educational and emotional development would be significant.”

If the science has changed, and the new variant represents a serious threat to children, teachers and support staff, then the Chief Scientific Adviser and the Chief Medical Officer should, at the very least, set out the evidence explaining this, and why everything they had said about the need to keep schools open has now changed.

Whether or not a risk assessment was carried out as to the impact of school closures on pupils’ educational attainment, mental health and wellbeing is unknown. If it hasn’t, it should have been, and if it has, it should be published.

What we do know, according to a report by the IFS and Nuffield Foundation, is that education inequalities have been exacerbated by the pandemic, and the gap between disadvantaged pupils and their better-off peers has widened significantly. Since September, disadvantaged children have missed more school than others. They are also less likely to return to schooling, even when given the chance to do so. The IFS state that the pandemic will halt or reverse the closing of the attainment gap – undermining much of the work the Government has done since 2010.

The RCPCH and the Royal Society of Psychiatrists (RSoP) have also highlighted the damage to pupils’ mental health and well-being of school closures. A few months ago, 1,500 members of the RCPCH signed an open letter warning of the “scarring” harm to children’s life chances. Last week, Dr Karen Street, an Officer of the RSoP, wrote harrowingly about the 400 per cent increase in eating disorders amongst young people – partly due to social isolation. On Saturday, in The Daily Telegraph, Dr Bernadka Dubicka, Chair of the Royal College of Psychiatrists Child Faculty, reminded readers of the:

“NHS digital data published in October which found one in six five-to-16-year-olds living with a mental health problem, up from one in nine just three years ago.”

She warned that:

“Inequalities will widen, life chances will diminish, and the mental health crisis already running rife in our young people could plague this generation for years to come – that is unless the Government urgently prioritises children and young people and places them at the centre of policy making”

For our younger generation, it looks pretty bleak.

Of course, there is remote learning, but there are still hundreds of thousands of students on the wrong side of the digital divide. The Government is trying to address this, with one million laptops being provided and free mobile data, thanks to an agreement reached with phone operators. However, for all the laptops in the world, it still isn’t enough. We know that online learning can be extremely varied. Moreover, it requires a student to open the computer and to study independently or for parents to provide constant support. School closures put enormous pressures on parents, many of whom are balancing their own work commitments, while trying to help educate their children.

The Government has made its decision on schools and we are where we are. So what should happen now?

First, everything should be done to try and get schools open. If this means ensuring that teachers and support staff are a priority for vaccination (not because one group of workers are favoured over another – but to get pupils back into the classroom and learning again), then so be it. The end of half-term re-opening should be a reality, not just an aspiration.

Second, the DfE must rocket-boost the £1 billion catch-up tuition fund to focus it on disadvantaged areas so that extra assistance can be given to pupils at risk of being left-behind. Mental health support should be provided in schools so that children, parents and teachers who are struggling can access counselling and advice when they need it.

Above all, the Government needs to set out a long-term plan for education – focused on addressing the attainment chasm between the disadvantaged and the better-off and, perhaps, look at the role and effectiveness of the £2.5 billion pupil premium, for starters.

Children, parents, teachers and support staff need an educational route map out of the Covid-19 swamp. Without it, many could be stuck in the mire of an epidemic of educational poverty and a crisis of mental health, long after the pandemic has passed. The levelling-up ladder of opportunity for the coming generation, will have been knocked away.