Tory group demands rethink on recovery plan for English schools

Furious Conservative MPs have privately demanded a rethink of the watered down recovery plan for schools in England after the government’s education recovery chief resigned over the proposals.

A group of Tories held a meeting Thursday afternoon with the MP Alex Burghart, Boris Johnson’s parliamentary private secretary, and the education ministers Nick Gibb and Vicky Ford. Sources said the MPs made clear they thought the proposal was inadequate.

Burghart assured MPs that more money would be made available. “He was told there has been a big mess-up over the last few days for no reason,” one source said.

The government announcement of a £1.4bn catch-up fund for pupils’ education in England was thrown into chaos on Wednesday by the resignation of the recovery chief, Sir Kevan Collins.

Collins said the offer – the equivalent of just £22 per child in the average primary school – “betrayed an undervaluation of the importance of education” and was “too narrow, too small and will be delivered too slowly”.

The adviser had proposed a “landmark investment” of £15bn in teachers, tutoring and an extended school day. One of the most robust Tory critics of the £1.4bn package has been Robert Halfon, the Harlow MP who chairs the Commons education committee.

“I do strongly welcome the money provided so far,” Halfon said. “None of this was there a year ago, and they should be given credit for that. But it’s a hefty starter, not the main course. If Sir Kevan’s resignation does one thing I hope it gives impetus to the government to set out a long-term plan for education, with a proper funding settlement. If the NHS and Ministry of Defence can have this, surely they can do the same for education?”

Anne-Marie Morris, the Conservative MP for Newton Abbot, said she believed there would be an “inevitable U-turn on school recovery funding down the line”.

In a series of tweets, Morris said that local headteachers had made clear that the money was not enough and was too ring-fenced to support specific pupil need. “School leaders need to be trusted to use funding in ways that best suit their school specific needs. Individual challenges often require individual approaches. Do wonder if the Treasury understands the real world sometimes,” she tweeted.

One senior Conservative source said there was deep disquiet about how limited the proposals were and said it was sending the wrong signal about the government’s priorities.

The source said: “People in No 10 think Boris and the Treasury have got this wrong. What are we about if not education and giving advantages to these kids who have sacrificed so much for the older generation? Is the prime minister’s priority really spending billions on bridges to Northern Ireland? It’s moments like this that people really remember.”

However, as details of Collins’ plan emerged, backbench MPs said they could understand some of the Treasury’s reservations, particularly over a massive state-funded expansion of private tuition and handing £12bn directly to schools to implement individual recovery plans.

Collins was said to have been optimistic initially that his plan would be adopted. But his allies said it had become clear in recent weeks that there was deep disquiet at the Treasury. The education secretary, Gavin Williamson, had attempted to persuade Collins to stay, with more money on the horizon at the autumn spending review.

A number of senior figures in education have also called for a rethink. The former Conservative education secretary Justine Greening accused the Treasury of “can-kicking”.

She said: “We need a plan to both help young people catch up post-Covid but also to close the existing education gaps already there before, and time is short. It makes no sense to anyone outside of the Treasury to wait until the autumn and risk another academic year with no comprehensive plan in place.”

Sir Michael Wilshaw, a former head of Ofsted, described the catch-up situation as “deeply, deeply, worrying” and called on the government to stump up more money. “This recovery is going to take longer than a few months or a year or two. It’s going to take a long time. If Gavin Williamson and the government want to make a better education system they’ve got to tackle poverty and educational inequality, and use money to narrow the gap. And if you’re going to appoint someone as eminent as [Collins] you’ve got to back him.”

Steve Chalke, founder of the Oasis multi-academy trust, which runs 52 schools, said the government’s catch-up plans were now in chaos and its “no child left behind” pledge was redundant.

He added: “This is a long-term game this catch-up for kids in vulnerable situations. More money should have been made available. There is a magic money tree. The new royal yacht was announced the other day, so there is money there. The government’s slogan, ‘no child left behind’ – do we believe that? The clear message to every educationalist, to every parent … is that’s not true. Lots of kids will be left behind.”

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