Education Reform

Structural reform? Yes, but we need a full recovery plan first

20 Jul 2021, 11:00

Education urgently needs clarity about the longer-term recovery plan and the solutions are evident. Government delay will only set social mobility back further, says Sammy Wright

For all the unprecedented events of the past few years – from Brexit to the pandemic, exam cancellations to the devastating (and still escalating) loss of learning – the problems we outline in our state of the nation report are the same as those we identified in my first in 2018.

The scale of the problem is worse – but the nature of it is not new. We have an education system that fails in the most basic test of fairness.

Of course, it is not as simple as this. I came into the social mobility commission as a teacher, and over three years I have received a pretty intensive education in the sheer complexity of the forces that shape the outcomes of the young people in Britain today.

Our report on the Long Shadow of Deprivation showed that even when qualifications are the same, there is still a significant pay gap for the most disadvantaged. Against the Odds unveiled that different kinds of poverty and school contexts need different kinds of interventions. And our report on course choice at FE and beyond concluded that young people are also held back by their own preconceptions.

If the effort to solve these problems was complex (and at times overwhelming) before the pandemic, its devastating impact on young people should act as a wake up call. Children and young people have missed over six months of in-person education – almost 5 per cent of their school careers. Disadvantaged students have been the most affected and will require significant and targeted support to catch-up. And in the meantime, schools are exhausted and demoralised.

The government has done much that is good and useful – the National Tutoring Programme, academic mentors in schools, COVID-19 catch-up funding, a replacement for exams this year that, whatever its faults, enabled schools to keep students in school and learning and put trust in teachers.

What is missing is the sense of urgency in developing the longer-term solutions

What is missing is the sense of urgency in developing the longer-term solutions. We are promised them, but every month that goes by means more directionless planning in schools, disengaged students drifting further, teachers struggling to do the basics without clarity about the next steps.

We welcome the £3 billion government spend on education. But along with others, we recognise the true cost of educational recovery at £13-15 billion. And we believe agonising over the long-term plan only lets precious time slip away when what is needed is clear:

  • To introduce a Student Premium for disadvantaged 16-19 students: Target funding at students who need it most, as they transition to a new phase of life. Disadvantage does not disappear at 16 and schools and colleges should be supported to close attainment gaps.
  • To fund additional teaching time in post-16: This will enable catch-up to be built into the existing school day, with accountability through existing mechanisms.
  • Factor persistent disadvantage into the Pupil Premium at all stages, targeting additional funds to students who have been in poverty for 80 per cent of their time in education.
  • Provide funding to schools to reward mid-career teachers in areas of persistent disadvantage who take on teaching and learning responsibilities (TLR).
  • Replace SATs (in years 2 and 6) with an externally moderated digital portfolio of work, shared with and co-designed by secondary schools to enable smoother transitions between key stages and enable continuous monitoring of attainment gaps.
  • Require young people taking GCSE’s and A-levels to stay in school after exams – initially for catch-up, but in the long term to teach employability and life skills.

There is a further conversation to be had about the design of education in England and the complex structural issues that underlie the persistent underachievement of the poorest and most marginalised people in our society.

There is also a discussion to be had about who and what we value, equality of esteem between careers and life-choices, and a social fabric that enables too many children to grow up with the terrible penalty of poverty and deprivation.

But those conversations are for later. For now, and urgently, we need to provide basic first aid to a system that is bleeding out.

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