Yesterday, the UK government announced the next phase of its Covid education recovery plan with £1.4 billion to be spent on tutoring pupils and training teachers in England. This falls far short of what’s really needed to ensure that – as the prime minister puts it – “no child is left behind”.
Firstly, let’s not forget that children were already being left behind before the pandemic. There is a widening attainment gap between poorer primary pupils and their peers. This is sadly not surprising when we know child poverty is rising and poverty at home is the strongest statistical predictor of how well a child will do in school. School budget cuts have led to per-pupil funding fall in real terms by around 9 per cent between 2009/10 and 2019/20. And increasing pressures around school-related costs often mean children in low-income households can’t participate in the same school activities as others.
Worryingly, but not surprisingly, COVID-19 has served to magnify and deepen these existing educational inequalities – leaving pupils from low-income families further disadvantaged. These pupils are owed a response that meets the scale of the issue, but the government has not delivered.
As well as sufficient funding, what’s missing from yesterday’s announcement is investment in extended schools provision, despite previous suggestions by the former education recovery tsar Sir Kevan Collins that some form of extended school day would be central to the recovery plan. The term ‘extended schools’ refers to any services delivered by schools that go beyond the core function of classroom education, such as sporting and cultural enrichment activities, breakfast and after-school clubs, pastoral support and holiday clubs.
We know that, done well, extended schools programmes which include these types of activities can have significant benefits for all children and families, but in particular those living on a low income. Activities around the school day can promote children’s development and learning, support mental health and wellbeing, mitigate the effects of child poverty and help prevent poverty by supporting parents to work. These programmes have always been important and required funding, but they have a vital role to play now.
Our research with Children North East during the most recent national lockdown showed how much families value extended schools programmes, and noticed their absence when many were stopped due to the pandemic. However, schools often have to rely on a combination of charities and fundraising to prop up these activities, which can make them both resource intensive and hard to maintain. Families also face a postcode lottery in terms of who has access to this provision.
It’s clear that schools must be fully funded by the government, as part of the recovery plan and beyond, to offer extended schools programmes that will benefit their pupils and communities. Crucially, this must not place additional demands on school staff who are already stretched. Instead this should provide schools with enough investment to work with partners, and take on additional people (where needed), so they can deliver high quality services and activities that support children and families, and help family budgets by supporting parents to work.
To ensure “no child is left behind”, and prove it believes in children and their futures, the government must invest in schools and activities around the school day that we know make a difference to all children, especially those growing up in poverty.