Sunak feared schools catch-up funding would become permanent

Rishi Sunak blocked a £15bn catch-up plan for schools because the Treasury feared a “temporary” initiative to pay teachers to work longer hours was not backed by evidence and might become permanent, according to people close to discussions.

The move by the UK chancellor dashed hopes of an ambitious recovery package for pupils across England, who lost out on months of schooling during the pandemic, drawn up by Kevan Collins, the government’s education recovery tsar. Collins, who was only appointed in February, quit in protest on Wednesday night.

The Treasury’s blocking of the funding package is a foretaste of further battles to come as Sunak tries to rein in public spending that has ballooned during the pandemic.

But critics accused the government of short-termism that will jeopardise the future of 8.7m schoolchildren in England, widen educational inequality and ultimately undercut public finances by many times the sum the Treasury could save.

The government has so far committed just over £3bn to address lost learning during lockdown, including the £1.4bn announced this week. Most of the funding is devoted to the expansion of a nationwide tutoring programme.

The figure is a fraction of what has been recommended. Collins had proposed a spend of £10bn to £15bn over three years. The plan was backed by the Education Policy Institute think-tank, which estimates children will have lost up to three months of learning over the pandemic.

It points to much greater commitments by other countries, including the Netherlands which has committed the equivalent of £7bn, or over £2,500 per pupil, and the US, which allocated $122bn, or £1,600 per child.

Bar chart of Lifetime cost of Covid measures, by implementing department (£bn) showing Education has received a tiny proportion of Covid support funding

In comparison, the £3.1bn for English schools amounts to just £300 per head — about 5 per cent of annual school spending or just 1.7 per cent if spread across three years, according to the IFS.

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David Laws, EPI’s chair, said the government’s commitment fell far short. “You have to have a package of an appropriate scale to recover what has been lost” he said. “Part of the problem of the package offered by the government is that it just doesn’t do that: under any realistic cost-benefit analysis, there’s not enough cost to deliver the benefit.”

Scrimping now will hurt the economy in the longer term. The Institute for Fiscal Studies think-tank put the long-term economic costs of missed schooling at £350bn in lost earnings, corresponding to £100bn in lost tax revenue. The EPI estimated the long-term loss of earnings between £62bn and £420bn.

Luke Sibieta, a researcher at the IFS, said the lack of funding for catch-up learning only compounds the situation for headteachers who have had to cope with a real-terms funding cut of 9 per cent per pupil over the past decade that has left school budgets stretched.

“It comes at a point when school finances have been heavily squeezed for more than a decade,” he said. “Schools have seen no growth in the spending power of their budgets for 13 years.”

Collins made no secret of his intentions to use catch-up to address some of these longer-term challenges when he was appointed in February. The decision by the government to appoint the highly respected former teacher with experience leading local government and charities was widely welcomed at the time.

Bar chart of  Covid-related spending on education in England (£m) showing Treasury funding does not cover the education department's spending

“I thought, this may be a moment when better things might happen for schools and for children,” Mary Bousted, the joint general secretary of the National Education Union, which represents teachers, said.

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But those hopes were dashed in a meeting between Sunak, prime minister Boris Johnson and education secretary Gavin Williamson on Monday night.

People familiar with discussions said Williamson battled hard for more funding and Johnson was sympathetic. But the chancellor dug in his heels on extending the school day and paying teachers extra accordingly.

This meant that Collins’ proposal for an equivalent of an extra 30 minutes of teaching daily for all pupils for three years had to be scrapped.

Sunak’s allies said the demand for an extra £15bn came “out of the blue” and argued proposals to extend the school day were based on “weak evidence”.

The chancellor argued that asking teachers to take a pay cut as schools returned to normal was implausible. He will come back to the question of catch-up for education in the autumn spending review.

One ally of the chancellor said the idea that this would have just been a short-term pay rise “was for the birds,” adding: “Our experience of temporary schemes is that they are very hard to roll back.”

But those close to Collins insisted the proposal had been carefully thought through and would have started with a trial in 2,000 schools.

Educators also said any funding needed to be committed as soon as possible, and long before the spending review, so teachers could plan a robust programme of catch-up in time for the next academic year.

Simon Kidwell, a primary school headteacher and a regional representative for the National Association of Head Teachers, said lengthening the school day would have justly compensated teachers working excessively long hours

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“We had to do a lot of work on children’s emotional support . . . some children had been quite traumatised by the lack of socialisation,” he said. “We should see education as an investment not a cost.”

Steve Chalke, founder of Oasis Community Learning, a multi-academy trust, said the decision would hit children from the poorest families hardest. He added that Collins’ departure raised difficult questions for the education secretary.

“Sir Kevan believed in the importance of his message enough to resign over it. If Gavin shared the same vision perhaps he should have had the courage to do the same thing.”


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