After two years of disrupted learning, schools in England face the challenge of helping children catch up on what they missed as the Covid crisis gives way to an economic squeeze that will stretch education budgets.
On Monday, the UK government laid out its vision for what education will look like over the next decade in a White Paper that promised to “level up” schools so all children get a “world class education”.
But with limited additional resources and few substantive changes to the curriculum, there is skepticism that the plan can achieve its aims.
What is wrong with pupil attainment?
Despite improvements in school standards in recent decades, a significant number of young people in England do not leave school with the skills they need, and the pandemic has caused them to fall further behind.
Government figures show just 65 per cent of children leave primary school with the expected standard in reading, writing and maths. In secondary school, the average GCSE grades in English language and maths in 2019 was 4.5 – lower than what is considered a strong pass.
Children who are more disadvantaged or vulnerable are more likely to underachieve, and where a child goes to school still has a profound effect on their outcomes. According to government figuresmore than 70 per cent of pupils in London achieved 5 good GCSEs in 2019 but in the West Midlands, the figure was only 64 per cent.
The pandemic has made things worse. New figures published on Monday by the Education Policy Institute think-tank found that by the middle of the 2021 autumn term, primary school children were nearly 2 months behind in maths compared to before the pandemic. Children in some regions fared better than others. Those in London were an average of 0.3 months behind in reading, compared with 1.3 months in the north east.
Secondary school pupils were an average of 2.4 months behind in reading over the same period, and had fallen behind by a further 0.5 months since the summer term. There was a gap of 1.5 months between disadvantaged pupils and their peers.
What are the government’s new attainment targets?
By 2030, the government wants 90 per cent of children to leave primary school with the expected standard in reading, writing and maths, as measured by National Curriculum Assessments, or SATs. It aims to increase the average grade in English language and maths for secondary school pupils from 4.5 to 5.
Launching the plan, education secretary Nadhim Zahawi said the best schools were already reaching these standards, but the government wanted to achieve them across the country.
As well as the new national target, the Department of Education will focus on improving attainment by one-third in 55 local authorities, where an average of just 62 per cent of primary school children reach expected standards, compared with 67 per cent in other parts of the country.
Zahawi argued that raising average results would result in improved outcomes for all students, including those already achieving high grades. “The overall drive behind it is that every child benefits if the average comes up,” he said.
How will they be achieved?
The strategy has four components: improving the curriculum and behavior in schools; providing targeted support for children who are falling behind; reforming school structures; and improving the quality of teaching.
To improve the curriculum, the DfE will create a semi-independent curriculum body that will work with teachers to create lesson plans and provide other resources. It has also committed £ 100mn to the Education Endowment Foundation, a charity, to research how best to improve teaching and share guidance with schools.
The plan hopes to improve teaching with a new qualification for teaching literacy, giving new teachers a mentor and training opportunities, and offering 150,000 funded scholarships for teachers to take courses throughout their careers.
The DfE will for the first time require that schools are open for a minimum of 32.5 hours each week – although most already stay open this long – and will encourage them to stay open for longer if possible.
Finally, the strategy calls for all schools to be part of an academy trust – a group of schools run independently from local authorities – by 2030. In a departure from previous policy, it will also allow local authorities to set up their own academy trusts.
A “parent pledge” will be established so that when any child falls behind, the school will tell their parents and put together a targeted program of support to help them. This will be funded by the £ 2.6bn annual pupil premium, which supports disadvantaged children, and by the £ 1.4bn National Tutoring Program.
Will the new strategy work?
Education experts acknowledge that the plan is ambitious, but point out that there is little detail on how the targets will be achieved and no substantial additional funding on offer.
According to the Institute for Fiscal Studies think-tank, real-terms funding for schools fell by 9 per cent between 2010 and 2020. An additional £ 4.4bn in last year’s spending review returned funding to 2010 levels, but sharp increases in inflation will eat away at these gains.
Russell Hobby, CEO of teacher training charity Teach First, said it was “unclear” how schools, particularly those in disadvantaged communities, could “be expected to achieve those goals with the current level of financial support”.
Joe Hallgarten, director of the Center for Education and Youth, said schools faced a “huge productivity challenge” and would need to make efficiencies to improve standards with limited funding.
He called for more fundamental change, such as redirecting resources from higher to lower performing schools. “It requires an even more radical redistribution of resources to the more marginalized areas,” he said.
There was also skepticism that the targets would be achievable given the impact of extensive school closures during the pandemic, particularly among the most disadvantaged students.
Natalie Perera, the CEO of the Education Policy Institute, warned that the paper would do little to narrow disparities.
“There’s nothing here really that’s going to shift the dial in terms of closing the disadvantage gap,” she said.