No child left behind? Really, Boris?

Written by: Paul Whiteman | Published:
More please, Boris: "The final sum per-child is paltry. It ends up at roughly £50 per head – possibly as little as £22 per primary school child" (image: Adobe Stock)

The paltry investment in education recovery unveiled by the DfE has been met, quite rightly, with derision. We can only conclude that schools and young people are not the government’s priority, says Paul Whiteman

It is fair to say it has been a pretty difficult week for the government when it comes to education.

After months of talking big and building expectation for education recovery, the announcement of their grand plan was, in the end, universally greeted with cries of “…is that it?” (SecEd, 2021).

After leaked reports that the school day itself could be fundamentally changed, after the prime minister’s statements that “no child will be left behind”, after organisations such as the Education Policy Institute put a figure of around £15bn on the cost of recovery (2021), and after reports that the government’s “catch-up tsar”, Sir Kevan Collins, was indeed requesting that level of investment from the Treasury, the final announcement of £1.4bn to cover a bit more tutoring fell utterly flat. A total damp squib.

It is not that £1.4bn isn’t a lot of money. But divided out between all the schools and school children in England, the final sum per-child is paltry. It ends up at roughly £50 per head – possibly as little as £22 per primary school child, according to Sir Kevan himself.

That really doesn’t buy much.

And when compared with the investment we’ve seen from other nations it looks even more miserly. In the Netherlands, the Dutch government has announced £7.3bn – about £2,500 per child. In the US, the “American Rescue Plan” is costing $130bn – roughly £1,600 per child. Meanwhile, Wales has invested £72m, or £239 per child. It is difficult not to feel that our children in England have been short-changed.

And it is not like the Treasury is adverse to splashing the cash when they want to. The ill-fated Eat Out to Help Out scheme alone cost taxpayers £849m, and support loans for small businesses totted up to £42.2bn by the end of 2020, the vast majority of which will never be paid back. Of course, support for business is important, but it shows how far down the government’s list of priorities children and young people seem to be.

All in all, the recovery announcement only confirmed the government’s lack of commitment to education – and its lack of ambition for the next generation.

The question of how much should be spent on recovery ought to have been answered with “whatever it costs”, such is the importance of investing in the future wellbeing of our young people and the future prosperity of our nation.

It is no wonder Sir Kevan felt he could not be a part of the charade any longer and resigned. There is little point in appointing an internationally respected education expert as catch-up tsar if you fail to listen to what they have to say.

So, what did school leaders want to see? The idea of extending the school day was not a popular one, among parents or the profession, with widespread concern that it could have a negative impact on childhood by reducing the time children spend with their family and friends and limiting opportunities to engage in extra-curricular activities.

Done correctly though, it could achieve the precise opposite.

By harnessing and expanding the work of existing extra-curricular providers and investing in community facilities and resources, all children could benefit from greater access to funded enrichment activities. There is a wealth of evidence to show the valuable life-skills that can be gained through non-academic activity and the positive impact on children’s mental health.

However, this would take serious investment and organisation and is not simply a question of adding additional classroom hours to the school day. It is a silver lining to the whole recovery plan debacle that the DfE has said it will properly review this idea.

Our recently published Blueprint for Recovery (NAHT, 2021) set out seven recommendations for the government on education recovery:

  1. Prioritise the early years.
  2. Improve support for children’s mental health and wellbeing.
  3. Invest in the teaching profession.
  4. Provide targeted academic support for pupils who need it.
  5. Expand extra-curricular provision and invest in extra-curricular providers.
  6. Invest in school technology.
  7. Remove unnecessary burdens and distractions from the education system.

The one thing I hear most regularly from school leaders across the country is that they do not want or need the government to tell them how to do their jobs. Schools are already doing the work of recovery and have been since children returned to classrooms – and they will continue to put everything into helping pupils recover and succeed throughout the rest of their school careers.

What they needed from the government was support. That is why the government’s failure to put their money where their mouth is was such a disappointment. All schools are asking for is sufficient funding and resources to get on with what they know works. They do not need to be told how to do the job, they just need the government to give them the resources and then stand back.

The government doesn’t fall into this trap with other professions. It doesn’t tell doctors how to practise medicine. In fact, one of the biggest successes in our fight against Covid, the vaccination programme, is a demonstration of exactly that – the government invested enough money into getting the vaccines and then handed over to the NHS and stepped back to let them crack on.

If only they’d do the same for education.

  • Paul Whiteman is general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers.

Further information & resources

  • EPI: Analysis paper: preliminary research findings on education recovery, April 2021:
  • NAHT: School leaders warn that ‘education recovery cannot happen on the cheap’, May 2021:
  • SecEd: Education Recovery Plan: Tsar's resignation rounds off nightmare day for DfE, June 2021:


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