The seismic changes delivered by the pandemic have created a unique opportunity to implement new policies in our schools for the benefit of all children, but particularly for those in the most disadvantaged communities. Issues over free meals and digital access have captured the nation’s attention, and schools’ efforts to keep children safe, well and learning have been widely praised.
So now is the moment to put education at the heart of the prime minister’s levelling up agenda, to close the attainment gap and to provide headteachers with the powers they need to deliver that promise.
The Northern Research Group of Conservative MPs and the Centre for Progressive Policy have recently released a policy paper on how the government can go about delivering this policy priority, and it has further support for our schoolchildren at its heart.
Our report shows that the north west and north east of England exhibit the poorest educational attainment at key stage 4, while the south east has the highest educational gap between children of disadvantaged and non-disadvantaged backgrounds. These persistent educational inequalities must be tackled now if levelling up is to become a reality.
Take my own county, for example. Cumbria has great schools and great teachers. But in spite of their best efforts, as is true across the north of England, many children here are trapped in a cycle of poor educational attainment. Through no fault of their own, they face a future of insecure, poorly paid employment. It’s bad for them, bad for the wider economy, and ultimately bad for their future children too. It’s a cycle that must be broken.
To do this, we are calling on the government to put in place an expanded pupil premium. This extended funding would be targeted at all primary-age children from families whose household income falls under £24,400, benefitting 1.3 million more children, with northern regions receiving the most investment. This would cost an additional £2 billion, taking the total cost of the pupil premium from £2.4 billion (2020/21) to £4.4 billion.
The pupil premium is one of the signature achievements of the Conservative-led governments since 2010. Extending it is a true Conservative policy, and can play a key role in tackling the educational attainment gap both between and within places.
Central to the policy’s success over the past decade is the fact that it gives money directly to schools. We firmly believe – and this, too, is true to Conservative values – that headteachers are best placed to know what their schools and their pupils need. As is made clear in our report, the NRG and CPP both strongly believe that decisions should be made by those who are closest to the children who will benefit from them. Whitehall bureaucrats, well-meaning though they doubtless are, are simply too far removed from local communities and their schoolchildren.
Putting the power into headteachers’ hands allows them to prioritise their schools’ needs, whether that’s attracting staff with higher salaries to fill shortages, increasing the number of teaching assistants working with specific students or on targeted interventions, or making educationally important extracurricular activities accessible for all pupils.
We know that education is integral to levelling up. Ensuring all children have access to high-quality education is absolutely foundational to breaking the cycle of insecure work, low wages and even poor health, which disadvantaged communities across the country consistently experience.
We also know that it will require substantial investments of both money and time. The prime minister recently announced it would take ten years. So, knowing the rewards will be worth the commitment, we now need to know how much government is willing to spend.
Expanding the pupil premium to all primary school-aged children from lower-income families would represent a significant step toward remedying these persistent inequalities for the long term. It would not only form a cornerstone for the wider levelling up agenda, but secure its lasting legacy.
My northern Conservative parliamentary colleagues and I hope to see this reflected in the plans the chancellor sets out in the forthcoming spending review.