Children in England should have learned to read by age seven. Given an age-appropriate book, they are expected to be able to focus on understanding – who the story is about, what is happening – rather than expend effort on sounding out individual words. Literacy, numeracy and social and physical skills are the blocks on which all learning is built. So it is concerning that the latest research on the pandemic’s effects shows that the number of very low attainers in reading, in the third year of schooling, has more than tripled.
In a sample of 6,000 pupils from 81 schools, the proportion who fell below expected levels rose from 2.6% to 9.1% between 2017 and this year. There was also a marked decline in maths, with very low attainers increasing from 2.6% to 5.5% of the total. While there were some signs of a recovery in the 12 months to spring 2022 – a period when schools remained open, with catchup schemes in place – the head of the Education Endowment Foundation, Prof Becky Francis, says that inequality exacerbated by the pandemic is now the “biggest challenge” facing schools overall.
In retrospect, Boris Johnson’s refusal to fund the post-pandemic package recommended by the expert hired for the purpose in 2021, Sir Kevan Collins, looks even more shortsighted and mean-minded than it did at the time. Mr Johnson offered less than 10% of the £15bn that Sir Kevan said was needed. How much better for the government to have invested in the future then, by putting in place a comprehensive recovery package.
Instead, schools were left high and dry, lacking the resources to make up for lost learning and to support the children most troubled by the disruption. Even the national tutoring programme was botched first time round, with the contract given to a private company that could not deliver. Other research, including from Ofsted, has shown that very young children were among the worst affected by the pandemic, with increased social and emotional difficulties and delays. Unsurprisingly, evidence points to the most serious consequences being suffered by those who already had least – and who spent lockdowns in overcrowded housing, with adults who were less able to support them.
Against this backdrop, the increase in school funding promised this month by the chancellor, Jeremy Hunt, offered some relief. An additional £2.3bn a year for two years is expected to bring funding back to roughly where it was in 2010 – and means teachers’ pay rises will no longer have to be funded via cuts. But the decision to plug the gap in schools’ budgets while ignoring nurseries and further education colleges is unforgivable. Years of rhetoric from successive ministers about skills, and new vocational routes as alternatives to university, have been exposed as hot air.
Educational divides are stark. Even before the pandemic, efforts at closing the gap between children from wealthy and poor households had stalled. The early years sector will need investment if this is to change. So will provision for pupils with special needs. The pupil premium should also increase, to give schools with the most deprived intakes additional resources. More must be done to recruit, retain and motivate teachers. The damage wrought by Covid-19 is obvious. But the Conservatives do not have a good story to tell seven-year-olds, or anyone else, about what has happened to schools in England throughout their years in office.