Four months after Sir Kevan Collins quit his role as the government’s education recovery tsar in a row over funding, the new children’s commissioner for England has entered the fray over how best to help pupils catch up with learning lost to the pandemic.
Collins, a popular and widely respected figure in the world of education, felt he had no choice but to resign after his proposals for a £15bn “landmark investment” in teachers, tutoring and an extended school day to rescue the battered education system were cut back to £1.4bn, taking total catchup funding to about £3.1bn.
The Department for Education tried to persuade him to stay, promising more money in the autumn spending review, but the gulf was just too vast and the money would not get into classrooms quickly enough, so he left.
With the spending review now weeks away and pressure mounting on the chancellor, the children’s commissioner, Dame Rachel de Souza, will hope that her intervention, via her Big Ask survey, will have greater success.
A former headteacher and academy trust leader, De Souza is thought to have a good relationship with Conservative ministers. The Inspiration Trust, which she led in Norfolk and north Suffolk, was founded by the Conservative peer and former academies minister Lord Agnew, and the former education secretary Michael Gove was such a fan that he told a local paper his ideal education policy would be to clone her “23,000 times”.
The timing may be in her favour, coinciding with the appointment of a boisterous new education secretary, Nadhim Zahawi, who will also be hoping to have more success persuading the Treasury to open its coffers for the nation’s children than his predecessor, Gavin Williamson.
Although she would not a put a figure on the amount needed to support a comprehensive catchup package, De Souza expressed support for a letter to the government signed by headteachers and leaders of five major academy trusts that called for £5.8bn “as a bare minimum”.
On Monday, the day before publication of the Big Ask survey, the signs were good. The launch was marked not with a press conference but with a photograph of De Souza with the new education secretary, snapped during a joint visit to a school.
“Read into that what you will,” said one insider. “One of the things she wanted to do was to say: ‘I’m independent, I’m on the side of kids and I really, really want you to take away from this that we should be putting them up, front and centre, as part of this recovery.’” To what degree the government listens remains to be seen.