Just think, they could call it social justice...

Written by: Geoff Barton | Published:
Social justice: Geoff Barton, general secretary, Association of School and College Leaders

The chief inspector does not realise just how badly her food parcel comments have landed. There is nothing new in schools supporting disadvantaged families – so how about we drop the meaningless ‘levelling up’ refrain and focus on real change, says Geoff Barton

A number of school leaders have mentioned to me their anger over a recent remark made by Ofsted chief inspector Amanda Spielman that schools prioritised food parcels over education for all children during the Covid lockdown (Weale, 2021).

In an event at the Institute for Government in September, she said: “In a lot of schools it felt as though their attention went very rapidly to the most disadvantaged children, into making food parcels, going out visiting.

“They put a great deal of attention into the children with greatest difficulties which is admirable, but in some cases that probably got prioritised – certainly last summer, the summer of 2020 – which may have meant that they did not have the capacity left to make sure there was some kind of education offer for all children.”

I am not sure the chief inspector realises quite how badly this comment has landed but it is clear that it won’t be easily forgotten.

The reality is that schools have had to juggle a range of extraordinary and unprecedented pressures over the past 18 months and, indeed, they continue to do so during an autumn term in which the virus is still causing very significant disruption.

What I have seen throughout this time of national emergency is school leaders and their staff straining every sinew to support all their students all the time. This has gone far beyond education alone, and has entailed significant public health responsibilities and, it is true, social care for children who are poor and vulnerable.

But there is nothing new about the latter role, and it is not a question of prioritising one thing over another. The pandemic has made the challenges suffered by poor children more visible – lack of food and laptops, for example – but the truth is that child poverty was already a huge and increasing problem. It’s part of everyday life for many communities and schools.

A recent research report from UCL (Moss et al, 2021) makes the point that the pandemic has shown the extent to which families rely on schools for basic needs.

It said: “Due to pressures linked to the pandemic, the research found that more families turned to schools as an important source of support. Among the issues schools reported dealing with included: children in need of food and clothing; families living in inadequate housing with inadequate space and resources to maintain learning at home; families with limited digital connectivity; individual pupils facing mental health crises and children experiencing difficult domestic circumstances, including domestic violence.”

In a relatively wealthy 21st century economy like ours it might be expected that child poverty would be in decline. In fact, the opposite is the case.

The Social Mobility Commission, in its latest State of the Nation report (2021), said: “Around 4.3 million children – almost one third of children in the UK – were living in poverty as of March 2020. This is an increase of around 700,000, or 3.7 percentage points, from March 2012.”

Over a roughly similar period, local authority budgets have undergone huge cuts and school funding per pupil in England fell by nine per cent in real terms (Sibieta, 2021). This means that schools and local authorities have to do more with fewer resources.

The scale of child poverty in our country is disgraceful in itself. But it is also one of the key factors behind the gap in educational attainment between poor children and their peers. Children who are hungry, poorly clothed and who live in sub-standard housing are unlikely to be in a fit condition to learn and may well suffer from poor mental health and wellbeing.

So, child poverty is both a social and an educational issue. The two are inextricably linked and addressing child poverty is therefore crucial to improving educational outcomes.

All of this can only be resolved through more money and more will on the part of central government. The buck stops with the prime minister, the chancellor and the cabinet. They need to make it happen. It is as simple as that.

I see many governments press releases each week where the phrase “levelling up” is crowbarred into the text regardless of how tortuous the construction. This week, for example, in a press release about investment in broadband, digital secretary Nadine Dorries was quoted as saying: “We are levelling up pupils’ and teachers' access to the fastest future-proofed broadband.” I kid you not, the press release really did say this.

Personally, I think the government should stop trotting out its “levelling up” refrain and come up with a substantial and coherent plan to address child poverty. This would have an actual and meaningful sense of political vision and ambition. They could call it social justice.

  • Geoff Barton is general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders. Read his previous articles for SecEd, via http://bit.ly/seced-barton

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