Robert Halfon: Delivering social justice means feeding children properly. We’re not doing so – and we must.

7 Oct

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.

Combating child food hunger should be as much a priority for this Government as its work on improving education standards. After all, we know the two are interlinked. Unsurprisingly, the evidence shows that hungry children not only do not learn at school, but have damaged life chances later on.

In 2018, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN estimated that around 2.2 million people in the UK have limited access to food, due to a lack of money or other resources. Magic Breakfast, the charity implementing the Government’s National Breakfast Programme, has calculated that approximately 1.8 million children are living in food insecure households.

The economic impacts of Covid-19 have only exacerbated the problem of child hunger. According to the Children’s Commissioner, 88,000 children were living in households where jobs had been lost in April this year. Many parents, who have worked hard their entire lives, found themselves unemployed and, for the first time, struggling to provide the next meal for their children.

The Food Foundation’s September 2020 report showed that the Government’s furlough scheme undoubtedly protected many families from going hungry. But their May polling data also suggested a 250 per cent increase of households experiencing food insecurity since lockdown measures came into force.

School closures have placed further additional financial pressures on parents. Where childcare arrangements were too costly, or didn’t fit around work commitments, many parents reduced hours or even left jobs to care for their children at home. Families also had to provide home learning resources, and cover increased electricity and food bills.

Marcus Rashford has been a powerful voice in the debate on child hunger, calling for a long-term, cross-party strategy from the Government.  His impassioned letters to MPs resulted in the Government’s extension of free school meals over the holidays and at the start of September he endorsed the National Food Strategy’s recommendations. He emotively described his own mother’s struggle to put food on the table. Working full-time, earning minimum wage, their family still “relied on breakfast clubs, free school meals and the kind actions of neighbours and [football] coaches.”

Some Conservatives question the role of the state in addressing child hunger, or argue that the Government’s welfare system already acts as a safety net for those falling on hard times. But, as Lord Krebs’ report revealed, when the Government’s own calculations of welfare payments do not cost in the provision of a healthy diet, in line with its recommended Eatwell Guide, we are not even giving families on Universal Credit a fair chance.

Second, child food insecurity has a big impact on a child’s education. Kelloggs’ report, A Lost Education, found that if a child arrives at school hungry, teachers believe they lose one hour of learning time a day. Add to that the impact of the lockdown on education inequalities – early analysis by the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) in June estimated that the attainment gap could widen by as much as 75 per cent due to school closures – and these children are at great risk of being further left behind.

However, a control trial has shown showed that pupils in schools supported by breakfast clubs made an additional twp months’ academic progress over the course of a year.

Third, the economy pays a high price, too. In terms of education alone, Kelloggs have calculated that “the grip of hunger could potentially cost the English economy at least £5.2 million a year through teachers losing teaching hours to cope with the needs of hungry children”.

In the long-term, there is enormous cost-benefit to improving education outcomes. Around a quarter of working-aged adults (approximately 9 million people) have low basic numeracy and literacy skills. Studies at Loughborough University indicated that £3.5 billion is lost in tax receipts from people earning less as a result of leaving school with low skills ,and child hunger costs the economy £29 billion a yearyear.

At a total price-tag well exceeding £1 billion a year, the three National Food Strategy policies endorsed by Rashford and his Task Force of prominent retailers and manufacturers are a tough sell to a Treasury spending unprecedented amounts to salvage our economy from the wreckage of the pandemic. But there is already money that could be put to better use.

First, consolidation is key. Over the years, the Government has applied sticking plasters to the crisis of food insecurity, resulting in a spaghetti junction of schemes spanning nearly every department. Putting welfare benefits to the side, we have Free School Meals, Universal Infant Free School Meals, the School Milk Subsidy Scheme, the Nursery Milk Scheme, the School Fruit and Vegetable Scheme, Breakfast Club funding, Healthy Start Vouchers and, during Covid-19, the Hardship Fund and the Holiday Activities and Food Programme. No wonder the Children’s Commissioner called for a “clear, joined-up plan to reduce food poverty”, during our Education Committee session on Tuesday.

It is hardly surprising, then, that many of these schemes are operating with cost-spiralling inefficiencies. The Healthy Start scheme, for example, suffers from extremely poor uptake. This is, in part, because of its archaic bureaucracy. Eligible pregnant women and parents of under-fours must complete and submit a paper application form (which has been particularly hard in lockdown for those who can’t get to a library to print out the forms).

Low participation in the scheme has created a significant underspend (2018/19 saw £28.6 million unused). Surely we can do much more to market the scheme, accelerate its promised digitisation and introduce automatic enrolment (with an opt-out), to ensure that support reaches those in need.

As an initial, basic step, we need proper data collection. The Health Department’s answer to my written question seeking the total expenditure on Healthy Start vouchers in England revealed that information is only held for 2018/19, raising concerns about the Health Department’s grasp of the situation.

Second, the Sugar Tax is forecast to generate a healthy £340 million revenue in 2020/21 – £1 billion over four years. Ringfencing this funding offers a perfect opportunity to extend Free School Meals over the school holidays, estimated at between £281 million and £670 million/year.

If we, as a state, acknowledge that certain children need food during term-time with the provision of Free School Meals, what changes over the summer holidays? In fact, we know that the financial pressures on parents only increase during this time.

As the Taxpayers’ Alliance has shown, the levy on everyday sugary food and drinks disproportionately impacts those from disadvantaged families, as low-income households tend to drink more sugary drinks and the tax takes a greater share of their income. Using this revenue for Free School Meals or for a long-term Holiday Activities and Food programme has appeal in redistributing money back to those families hit hardest by the levy.

Third, the sceptics amongst us will point out that the conglomerates on Rashford’s Task Force are getting a great deal of good PR, without putting their money where their mouth is. The Evening Standard estimated that supermarkets throw away around £230 million worth of food each year. There is a real opportunity here for the supermarkets, wholesalers and manufacturers, to take on a much bigger role in combating child hunger.

As Conservatives, we need to address this social injustice. This is not about an expansion of the welfare state, but simply ensuring all our children are properly fed. As the pandemic has shown, if we don’t have a safety net at the bottom of our ladder of opportunity, what is the point?

John Bald: Ofqual’s evidence at a Select Committee this week demonstrated why it should be wound up

4 Sep

John Bald is a former Ofsted inspector and has written two books on the history of writing and spelling. He is Chairman of the Conservative Education Society.

Ofqual’s appearance at the Education Select Committee on Wednesday showed more clearly than anything to date just how far the organisation’s faith in statistical modelling and lack of understanding of education led it into error – and the education system into chaos.

Roger Taylor, its Chairman, started confidently, saying that Ofqual had wanted examinations to continue, but had been overruled by the Secretary of State. A second option had been to delay the examinations, and the third to find “some form of calculated grades.”

Gavin Williamson wrote to Ofqual on March 31 to say that students should receive “calculated results based on their exam centres’ judgements of their ability in the relevant subjects, supplemented by a range of other evidence.”

He went on to say that the approach should be “standardised across centres”, and that steps should be taken to maintain a similar grade profile to previous years. Ofqual then used “statistics and teachers’ rankings” to produce something which, said Taylor, was as fair as it could be.

The first error was to advise that examinations continue. This was impossible because some schools, following trade union advice, stopped direct online teaching as soon as lockdown started, while others – only a handful in the state sector – did not.

Stopping teaching when it would have been perfectly possible to continue it for A level classes would have put the affected pupils at a serious disadvantage. The same issue would have affected delayed examinations.

Ofqual’s statisticians could not have been expected to understand these considerations, but ministers did. Ofqual’s Board, which has highly experienced and expert practitioners, would have been able to explain the position but,  according to its official records, did not meet between 26th September 2019 and a late-night session on 15th August, when it put its collective foot down over the botched appeals process. Why not?

What seems to have happened instead is the delegation of the work to a technical group, which did not standardise teachers’ assessments, as instructed, but ignored them completely by applying a statistical model to their rankings. Michelle Meadows, Ofqal’s “Executive director, strategy, risk and research”, justified this by saying that teachers’ grades were not accurate, but that their rankings were.

There is some research evidence to support this view, notably from Daisy Christodoulou, but to ignore teachers’ grades completely was a victory for statistics over reality. Dr Meadows told the committee that 0.2 per cent of grades were “potentially anomalous” and that the statistical model – which I will not flatter with the term “algorithm” – was fair and unbiased.

Furthermore, as teachers were often unsure whether to enter candidates for lower or higher tiers in some subjects, Ofqual had removed any limitation on grades for foundation candidates. That sounds fair – until we see pupils with very limited skills awarded grade 9 on the basis of work they’d never even seen.

Conservative committee members Jonathan Gullis and Christian Wakeford made the case for reality, Gullis pointing to the unfairness of the model to large entries from FE colleges, and Wakeford echoing a pupil’s lament, “I’ve got somebody else’s D”.

The consequences of not applying the model to entries of fewer than five candidates, which favoured private schools and some subjects had clearly blind-sided Ofqual, as did the question why they did not run this year’s results, which they had had since June, through the model to see how far it worked.

Dr Meadows evaded this question, saying they had done all sorts of trials. The point is: why not this one, which would have allowed problems to be identified in advance? It is hard to see how a system that only claimed 60 per cent accuracy could result in only 0.2 per cent of potential anomalies, but Dr Meadows was undaunted. Analysis did not show any bias in the system.

Robert Halfon concluded by asking whether Ofqual was fit for purpose, to which the witnesses, all of them Ofqual officials, predictably replied in the affirmative.

I do not agree with them. Assigning children’s futures to a statistical model, without considering the quality of their work, or even looking at it, is not the action of a reasonable body, acting reasonably, and would have brought a well-deserved hammering on judicial review.

If Ofqual had moderated teachers assessments sensibly, perhaps, as suggested by Bob3142 in response to my previous article, by requiring schools to justify any overall change from past performance, we could have had a fair outcome. As it is, we have had to swallow the grade inflation, and leave schools and universities to sort out the mess. Ofqual should be wound up.

Labour’s hypocrisy over A Level results

18 Aug

Almost every publication, including this site, has been critical of the Government’s U-turn on school exams in England.

Gavin Williamson’s decision to move from Ofqual’s model, which resulted in 40 per cent of predicted marks being downgraded, to teacher-assessed grades for A Levels and GCSEs (unless the grades produced by the algorithm are higher) caused chaos among students and teachers.

Now it’s universities who’ll have to deal with the consequences, given that many teenagers have different marks to before and want to change which one they go to.

As you might expect from the leader of the opposition, Keir Starmer has been scathing about the recent events. On his Twitter feed he is particularly fond of one word – “incompetent/ incompetence”, which he has accused the Government of being seven times since Sunday (heaven forbid there’s a thesaurus at Labour HQ).

After teacher-assessed grades (predicted grades) were accepted, he declared the changes a “victory for the thousands of young people who have powerfully made their voices heard this past week.”

Of course, it’s very easy for Labour to take the high road in these times, but its own position on exam results hasn’t been clear exactly.

In April, for instance, Angela Rayner, the party’s Deputy now, but Shadow Education Secretary then, criticised predicted grades, telling FE News:

“we have always said predicted grades are not always accurate, and can disproportionately affect the children who need the most support”.

In August 2019, she also said:

“Predicted grades are wrong in the vast majority of cases, and disadvantaged students in particular are losing out on opportunities on the basis of those inaccurate predictions.

Similarly, Kate Green, the now Shadow Education Secretary, was sceptical about predicted grades – and argued for grades to be standardised in July:

“Labour has argued for years that predicted grades already create significant challenges for disadvantaged students, and without fair standardisation and appeals many more students could be unfairly affected by calculated grades. The Government and Ofqual must urgently act to ensure that young people from ethnic minority and disadvantaged backgrounds do not lose out under this system”.

However, she has since called the results a “farce that is incredibly cruel to young people”, adding that teacher-assessed grades were the right way forward.

Indeed, she celebrated their implementation, Tweeting: “Well done to all students, parents and teachers who have campaigned for this u-turn. I am so pleased GCSE & A level results will be on basis of teacher assessment as you and @UK Labour called for.”

For all the horror about England, too, some have pointed out the party’s silence over results in Wales.

On Good Morning Britain, Rayner said the fact that 40 per cent of students had their marks downgraded was “completely unfair” and “completely flawed”. Starmer, too, launched a video which said “The Tories’ incompetent handling of this year’s exams” was “robbing a generation of their future”.

But given that 42 per cent of grades were downgraded in Wales, as a result of a similar algorithm, where was the video about Welsh Labour robbing futures?

For some Tory MPs, Labour’s complaints are too little, too late. 

Robert Halfon, Chair of the Commons Education Select Committee, told me: the “opposition parties mostly accepted the grading system that the Government and Ofqual had chosen, as did the trade unions. It’s easier to jump on a bandwagon after the event, but there were very few who were actually calling this out from the beginning.”

His colleague Jonathan Gullis echoed this sentiment, saying: “As a member of the Select Committee, we had spoken with Ofqual, and as I remember there were no serious concerns raised other than making sure that grades would be handed out as fairly as possible in exceptional circumstances.”

Speaking of Starmer, he added “[he] once again jumps on any bandwagon going. We heard nothing from him in the build up to results day about the system; in fact, the Shadow Education Minister, now Deputy Leader, was in favour of what Ofqual was doing. But once again Sir Keir Starmer is more interested in trying to please the people of Twitter and the mainstream media.”

Perhaps the Labour leader knows more about “incompetence” than he thinks…

Labour’s hypocrisy over A Level results

18 Aug

Almost every publication, including this site, has been critical of the Government’s U-turn on school exams in England.

Gavin Williamson’s decision to move from Ofqual’s model, which resulted in 40 per cent of predicted marks being downgraded, to teacher-assessed grades for A Levels and GCSEs (unless the grades produced by the algorithm are higher) caused chaos among students and teachers.

Now it’s universities who’ll have to deal with the consequences, given that many teenagers have different marks to before and want to change which one they go to.

As you might expect from the leader of the opposition, Keir Starmer has been scathing about the recent events. On his Twitter feed he is particularly fond of one word – “incompetent/ incompetence”, which he has accused the Government of being seven times since Sunday (heaven forbid there’s a thesaurus at Labour HQ).

After teacher-assessed grades (predicted grades) were accepted, he declared the changes a “victory for the thousands of young people who have powerfully made their voices heard this past week.”

Of course, it’s very easy for Labour to take the high road in these times, but its own position on exam results hasn’t been clear exactly.

In April, for instance, Angela Rayner, the party’s Deputy now, but Shadow Education Secretary then, criticised predicted grades, telling FE News:

“we have always said predicted grades are not always accurate, and can disproportionately affect the children who need the most support”.

In August 2019, she also said:

“Predicted grades are wrong in the vast majority of cases, and disadvantaged students in particular are losing out on opportunities on the basis of those inaccurate predictions.

Similarly, Kate Green, the now Shadow Education Secretary, was sceptical about predicted grades – and argued for grades to be standardised in July:

“Labour has argued for years that predicted grades already create significant challenges for disadvantaged students, and without fair standardisation and appeals many more students could be unfairly affected by calculated grades. The Government and Ofqual must urgently act to ensure that young people from ethnic minority and disadvantaged backgrounds do not lose out under this system”.

However, she has since called the results a “farce that is incredibly cruel to young people”, adding that teacher-assessed grades were the right way forward.

Indeed, she celebrated their implementation, Tweeting: “Well done to all students, parents and teachers who have campaigned for this u-turn. I am so pleased GCSE & A level results will be on basis of teacher assessment as you and @UK Labour called for.”

For all the horror about England, too, some have pointed out the party’s silence over results in Wales.

On Good Morning Britain, Rayner said the fact that 40 per cent of students had their marks downgraded was “completely unfair” and “completely flawed”. Starmer, too, launched a video which said “The Tories’ incompetent handling of this year’s exams” was “robbing a generation of their future”.

But given that 42 per cent of grades were downgraded in Wales, as a result of a similar algorithm, where was the video about Welsh Labour robbing futures?

For some Tory MPs, Labour’s complaints are too little, too late. 

Robert Halfon, Chair of the Commons Education Select Committee, told me: the “opposition parties mostly accepted the grading system that the Government and Ofqual had chosen, as did the trade unions. It’s easier to jump on a bandwagon after the event, but there were very few who were actually calling this out from the beginning.”

His colleague Jonathan Gullis echoed this sentiment, saying: “As a member of the Select Committee, we had spoken with Ofqual, and as I remember there were no serious concerns raised other than making sure that grades would be handed out as fairly as possible in exceptional circumstances.”

Speaking of Starmer, he added “[he] once again jumps on any bandwagon going. We heard nothing from him in the build up to results day about the system; in fact, the Shadow Education Minister, now Deputy Leader, was in favour of what Ofqual was doing. But once again Sir Keir Starmer is more interested in trying to please the people of Twitter and the mainstream media.”

Perhaps the Labour leader knows more about “incompetence” than he thinks…