Education recovery: Time for the DfE and the Treasury to step-up

Written by: Paul Whiteman | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

We need to see the government’s blueprint for education recovery and we need to see it now, says Paul Whiteman. Ahead of this month’s NAHT policy-making conference, he also calls for the new secretary of state to stand up to the Treasury on school funding

It is hard to overstate the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on school communities. Since the early months of 2020, school leaders and their teams have had to deal with a set of challenges the likes of which no-one could have anticipated.

During that time, I, along with other members of the NAHT team, have been privileged to speak with thousands of school leaders across England, Wales and Northern Ireland. Through those conversations, I have heard first-hand the lengths schools have gone to in order to protect and care for pupils in the most unimaginably challenging of times.

From the very start of the crisis, school staff looked after the most vulnerable pupils as the country went into lockdown; they went to extraordinary lengths to keep children fed and safe and effectively re-imagined the very concept of “school” as they worked to implement a remote learning offer.

There is no doubt in my mind that this vital work helped to shield large numbers of children from the worst effects of the pandemic.

Despite the incredible efforts of school staff, early research has suggested that pupils in England experienced losses of up to two months in reading (in primary and secondary schools), and up to three months in maths (in primary schools) by the first half of the autumn term 2020 (Van den Brande & Andrews, 2021).

While we should be careful not to draw firm conclusions from these early, tentative findings, it is self-evident that learning has been disrupted.

Earlier this year, the government appointed Sir Kevan Collins as its “education recovery commissioner” and announced he would publish a series of recommendations later in the summer term. However, Sir Kevan resigned in May because the government showed no signs of matching his £15bn plan to help pupils (SecEd, 2021).

That was a deeply disappointing day for all those working in schools. There is little point in appointing an internationally respected education expert as catch-up tsar and then failing to listen to what they have to say. The Treasury has so far refused to respond to the education crisis in the same way as they have the economic one.

While the government has been deliberating, school staff have been quietly, but determinedly, getting on with the crucial task of supporting pupils. In fact, this work never stopped. Since all pupils have returned to school in person, teachers have been busy identifying the additional support they need and putting that in place. They have not waited for the government to catch up.

As many leaders have pointed out to me, one of the best strategies for educational recovery is to allow schools to continue to do what they have always done: provide a well-taught, broad and balanced curriculum; support pupils’ personal, social and emotional development and provide additional support to those that need it.

That is why building on the excellent work already taking place in schools is one of the key principles of a successful recovery.

Another part of the picture is the nature of the recovery we want to see.

To me, “recovery” implies a return to what we had before, which is simply not good enough. The world has changed and will continue to change at a startling pace. We need to equip young people with the skills to navigate what is in front of them. We should be talking about building a system that is stronger and fairer than the one we know.

The NAHT has put forward an education recovery blueprint (NAHT, 2021) which urges policy-makers to focus on seven key areas, including prioritising early years funding and provision, as well as improving support for mental health and wellbeing for all pupils.

We have a new man at the top of the DfE now. The crucial task of translating the government’s rhetoric on “levelling up” in education into reality now sits with this new secretary of state.

Alongside taking proactive measures to minimise disruption to education this winter, one of the most pressing tasks facing Nadhim Zahawi will be to ensure that the government now fulfils its promise to deliver a properly funded recovery package. With the comprehensive spending review only weeks away, there really is no time to waste.

The fact remains that whatever shape education recovery takes, it will need a hefty commitment of public spending. Conversely, as things stand, the government’s failure to invest in schools is harming the chances of young people. Our recent research shows that almost a third of school leaders are being forced to make cuts in 2020/21 (see Headteacher Update, 2021).

As one school leader said to me recently, the current funding crisis results in a Hobson's Choice for heads: which of the most essential resources will children have and which will they have to do without? You would expect an essential like reading books to be provided by the school, she said. But no – to afford these, parents and the local community have to fundraise constantly.

So, although parents are sending their children to a state maintained school, they are still footing the bill. Her parting shot was: “Is this fair?”

The prime minister’s promise that no child would be left behind due to learning lost during the pandemic now needs to be delivered. Without doubt, schools will need a radically more ambitious package of investment from the Treasury in order to get the job done.

  • Paul Whitehead is general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers. Read his previous blogs for SecEd via

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