The writer is executive chairman of the Education Policy Institute and was schools minister in England, 2012-2015
It’s not difficult to guess why HM Treasury might have been unenthusiastic about paying the £15bn bill for education catch-up, as presented to the government a month or so ago by the prime minister’s “Recovery Tsar”, Sir Kevan Collins. The UK’s budget deficit has over the past year surged to levels that make earlier periods of “red ink” look positively austere by comparison.
The chancellor will also be conscious that this autumn he faces the prospect of a challenging three-year spending review, in which cabinet colleagues will bid for extra funding for worthy causes such as NHS recovery, improved social care and “levelling up”. The Treasury doesn’t like doing bilateral deals with departments — preferring to look at spending pressures in the round, so that the prime minister and cabinet are forced to confront some of the difficult trade-offs necessary to maintain spending discipline.
So Rishi Sunak and Treasury officials may this weekend be toasting their extraordinary success in gutting the prime minister’s education package — reducing the money allocated over three years from a meaningful £15bn to a miserly £1.4bn and leading to the resignation of Collins. Rarely if ever does the Treasury expect to cut back a spending bid by over 90 per cent, particularly when it is supported by the prime minister.
But the Treasury may eventually come to regret this “win”. It has so reduced the recovery package that it now provides just £50 per year extra per pupil — barely enough to deliver an extra hour of tutoring per term per child.
Since the pandemic began, education data demonstrate that pupils have on average fallen behind by between 2 and 3 months in their core learning, in English and maths. It is important to understand that these figures are national averages. Some children, typically in the most affluent communities and schools, may have suffered little learning loss. But disadvantaged and vulnerable students may have suffered losses of 4, 5 or even 6 months. And it looks as if regions worst hit by the virus, including in the north of England, have suffered much bigger learning losses than in parts of the south.
This all highlights a number of very significant risks for our nation. First, if left unmitigated, the pandemic is likely to damage social mobility. It already looks as if a large percentage of the gains made in reducing the educational “disadvantage gap” over the past decade have been lost. Even before the pandemic, disadvantaged children were 18 months behind their wealthier peers by the time they took their GCSEs — a shocking statistic.
Alongside the damage to social mobility is the impact on regional disparities, and the government’s ill-defined agenda of levelling up. It is exactly those areas in the north and midlands that the government says it wants to level up which may have been most affected by the pandemic, because of the effects of poverty and higher virus prevalence. Yet improved education is surely one of the most important vehicles for levelling up, and may be a lot cheaper for the Treasury than seeking to boost subsidies to incentivise companies to locate to areas which they would not normally choose.
Finally, and crucially, evidence from other global “learning shocks” over the past 70 years shows that if left unmitigated, periods of significant learning loss have a long-term impact in lowering earnings, national income and therefore tax revenues. The net present value of unmitigated national learning losses could easily be in excess of £100bn — creating a strong case for a well-funded education recovery plan, provided this is based on sound evidence and effective delivery.
This may be why countries such as the US and Netherlands have decided to significantly outspend the UK. The Netherlands has allocated around £2,500 extra per child, and the US around £1,600. On a similar basis, the extra spending in England amounts to around £310 per child, taking into account both this week’s package and earlier announcements.
This is why the Treasury and Sunak were wrong to resist a substantive education recovery package. The Treasury has won a short-term political battle, and reduced near-term spending pressures. But there will now be a high future price to pay in lower social mobility, greater regional inequality, more young people not in education or work, lower productivity, reduced earnings and lower long-term tax revenues.
Boris Johnson and Sunak have failed the nation’s children this week, and their inaction risks leaving us all poorer rather than better off. Sometimes spending more on education is truly an investment. The government should consider correcting this serious policy mistake as rapidly as it can.