The Guardian view on schools: ministers failing children

As English schools reopen for the autumn, relief and pleasure are mixed with apprehension and anger. Given the government’s shabby record on shepherding schools through the pandemic, it could be no other way. Even now, with a new term under way, confusion surrounds the question of whether younger teenagers are to be vaccinated. The health secretary, Sajid Javid, and his counterparts in the devolved administrations, are seeking advice from the chief medical officers, which could override last week’s decision by the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation not to support a full rollout.

The catch-up budget for England, of £50 per year per pupil, is so small as to be an insult (by contrast, the Education Policy Institute pointed out, the US government has committed to spending an additional £1,600 per pupil, and the Netherlands £2,500). This decision led Sir Kevan Collins to resign as catch-up tsar four months after being appointed. Sir Kevan thought he had secured a commitment to a £15bn package, only to be offered £1.4bn instead.

Recent figures from the Institute for Fiscal Studies serve to underline the severity of the government’s neglect. Analysis shows that a 9% drop in real terms in 2022-23 means spending on schools will be the largest fall in 40 years. A new national funding formula introduced in 2018 hit poorer areas hardest, as was widely predicted. Now the impact of Covid is compounding the harm. Even the catch-up funding that exists has been poorly allocated, with the government’s chosen method – state-funded private tuition – failing to reach some of those most in need of help.

Nor are budgets the only area where ministers have failed families, teachers and schools. The assessment system is in a mess, with no coherent plan (or even a clear commitment) to address the numerous anomalies thrown up by the chaotic mismanagement of the past two years. The education secretary, Gavin Williamson, has been a weak leader. It is a grim irony that the relentless pursuit of academic “rigour” under the former education secretary Michael Gove produced a system that was, with its narrow focus on exams, so lacking in resilience. Samantha Price, leader of the (private) Girls’ School Association, believes that both the assessment system and university admissions process are unfit for purpose, in part because of their effect on young people’s mental health.

From the moment that schools were first closed, in March 2020, it was clear that children were uniquely exposed in this crisis. Free, full-time education is a time-limited right for which adults rarely qualify. With schools closed, and hardly anyone expecting online lessons to achieve the same results, it was clear that children were losing out on a precious entitlement. Yet at no time have UK government ministers conveyed a sufficiently robust commitment to protect children from this damaging educational deficit – and to work out how they would be compensated.

Given the extremity of the health crisis and failures in the care system, it is no wonder that the loudest funding arguments of the past year have concerned the NHS and social care. Education has played second fiddle. Since September 2020, schools have had to meet a significant amount of Covid-related costs from their own budgets. Children are, thankfully, less vulnerable to Covid from a physical point of view than adults. But this is no excuse for what has happened, which is that they appear to have been relegated to the back of policymakers’ minds. This government’s treatment of children over the past 18 months has been shameful. Schools will continue to do their best. Mr Williamson ought to be replaced. But there is no reason to think that the government’s approach to young people will improve.

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