Maybe it’s because Boris Johnson’s children are either too old or too young to be in school anymore. Maybe it’s because he’s more focused on rolling the dice on his July 19 freedom day. Maybe it’s because his education secretary lacks any real clout within the cabinet.
But whatever the reason, the growing anger among parents, pupils and teachers at the Covid chaos within schools right now is something any government would be wise to heed. New figures from the Department for Education laid bare the problem, with a massive 330,000 pupils forced to self-isolate in the past week.
The return of remote learning and home-schooling is difficult for the children but also for their parents, particularly if they’re losing income because they cannot go out to work. Just as important is the social loss incurred, with many missing those longed-for end-of-year trips, sports events and school productions.
And yet there is a solution. Schools have been taking part in clinical trials of a system of daily testing that prevents the need for Covid close contacts to automatically isolate at home. Instead of an entire class of 30, or even a whole year group, having to quarantine, only those who actually test positive have to stay home. Staff and pupils who test negative can turn up as normal.
The headteacher of Westhoughton High School in Bolton (yes, which was a Delta hotspot) revealed on Tuesday just what a success the pilot had been. More than 500 pupils and staff had avoided having to isolate, with a huge 3,500 “saved learning hours” as a result.
The academic gains from classroom time are obvious. But I was struck most of all by Patrick Ottley-O’Connor’s remark, to Radio 4’s World At One, that “the mental health of students has been massively impacted positively by being able to stay in school”.
Fortunately, Sajid Javid has hinted he wants to act on such pilots. And sources in the DfE hint that from September such testing will be the norm. Yet many wonder why there isn’t any action right now. When asked if the government had given up on any changes for this term, the PM’s spokesman told us: “That’s not at all how I characterise it, obviously.” Except it wasn’t obvious.
The pilots will need assessing, but they have been running for several weeks and it’s worth asking why there hasn’t been a fast-tracked assessment for testing just as there was for vaccines. The JCVI managed to give the UK a head start on approval of vaccines precisely because it took a sensible view of risk.
The great irony about the current school testing inertia is that it was always the PM’s early preferred route out of the pandemic. It was mass testing that was his ‘moonshot’, even though in the end it was the Matt Hancock’s early gamble on vaccines that really reached for the stars (and don’t forget Dominic Cummings ridiculed Hancock for it last autumn).
Yet just as baffling for some Tory MPs has been the inertia around school catch-up policy too. Boris Johnson told us last June, a whole year ago, that there would be “a massive summer catch-up operation” for schools. (Spoiler: it did not materialise). In March, he said: “The legacy issue I think for me is education.” It was “an opportunity to make amends”, he said.
But as former catch-up czar Sir Kevan Collins made plain, that promise has not yet been met. Collins’ evidence to the Education Committee was as politically devastating as it was patient and methodical. The cost-benefit analysis (£100bn and maybe £420bn could be lost in a hit to the economy from education losses) was overwhelming, even for a Treasury beancounter.
Ultra-reasonable, grounded in his own long experience in dealing with schools and social policy for children, he simply said the PM’s response had been “feeble” in the face of the enormity of the challenge. He pointed out he had presented his £15bn case for a longer school day to the PM, the chancellor and Gavin Williamson (and intriguingly Michael Gove too).
With only £1.4bn pledged so far, Collins said the PM’s signal of even more money later this year was not made in “bad faith”. His complaint was that later this year would be too late. And he squarely blamed the Treasury too for sticking to its spending review timetable (of November) instead of focusing on the school year timetable (starting in September).
As with school testing, this was about a lack of urgency. Children are on average two months behind in reading and three months behind in maths, and those averages mask even worse stats for the poorest kids. Collins pointed out that a child arriving from primary school to secondary next year could fall into a spiral of decline. With more textbooks, more subjects, the risk was “they don’t catch up” and instead go backwards.
Collins called for a 10-year spending strategy for schools, which is precisely the kind of bold ambition the Johnson government may need to run alongside similar ambitions for the NHS. Not for nothing has Labour’s new shadow chancellor Rachel Reeves made the £15bn catch-up funding her main spending pledge to date.
The Treasury has been privately dubious about Collins’ extra hours plan, suggesting teachers may not wear it. But the real obstacle may be the long-term nature of the hard cash needed. Because once you start spending real money to tackle educational inequalities, it can’t be a ‘one-off’ that you can then take away later.
Spending reviews are indeed usually the kind of place for such commitments. Yet when an emergency furlough scheme can be drafted (brilliantly by HMT officials) in such short order as it was last year, why not a ‘summer education plan’ to match the ‘winter economic plan’?
As I wrote last year, the pandemic response should not just be about lives and livelihoods, it should be about life chances. And if the PM can’t even deliver on what’s supposed to be his personal “legacy issue”, the public may wonder what happens to all those issues he doesn’t care about.