Did the Chancellor invest in improving our children's prospects in yesterday's Budget? Kind of. He certainly invested. Over four years he is spending £640 million on turning all schools into academies and moving to a new funding formula, £690 million on longer school days, £490 million on school sports and £80 million to improve attainment in Northern schools. Sadly, the chances of this windfall actually improving education, especially for children from low income backgrounds, is uncertain at best.
The money for Northern schools is certainly welcome. At its peak, the London Challenge had a budget of £40 million a year and helped to make London's schools the standout success in UK education. However, much more is being spent on initiatives with very uncertain chances of success. When over 800,000 pupils, just over two-thirds on free school meals, do not achieve five good GCSEs, we need to ensure every penny is spent wisely on closing the attainment gap. This matters because pupils leaving school without the qualifications they need holds back their potential to contribute to the economy and society, which has costs to us all.
There is no clear evidence that academies are better in improving educational outcomes. A recent comprehensive review of the links between poverty and education found little robust evidence that promoting particular types of schools or school structures are effective ways of improving the educational attainment of children from low income backgrounds. Academies may help a school to improve, but does not necessarily prevent performance from declining again. On longer school hours, the Government's own authority on educational evidence, the Education Endowment Foundation says that extending school time is 'low impact for moderate cost' ( Translation: if you have extra money to spend you can get a lot more from doing other things with it.) On spending for school sport, it is more likely to bring health benefits than educational ones. It's vital that the money doesn't just subsidise activities that are already happening but is used to enable children from low income backgrounds to access sport that they might otherwise be excluded from because of a lack of transport, bus fares, clothes or equipment.
The bottom line is that the Chancellor found extra money for education but spent most of it on measures which could end up doing little to improve prospects for those children who need it most. Here are four ways the money could have been better spent:
- Extending the Pupil Premium to 100 000 primary and 100 000 secondary school pupils living in poverty who currently miss out because their parents are in work: costing £225 million per year.
- Support for children with Special Educational Needs at risk of exclusion: costing around £8 million per year.
- Increasing the Early Years Premium from £300 to £600 per child, extending it to two-year-olds and introducing it in the devolved administrations: costing £128 million per year.
- Funding a fully graduate led early years workforce, supported by funding to meet training and wage costs: costing £200 million to £500 million per year.
Improving the prospects of young people is always welcome - but when resources are tight, we need make sure any extra help is targeted at those with the biggest ground to make up.