Sam Freedman writes for the Chartered College of Teaching on the current policy landscape for teaching, what’s on the horizon and the issues being looked at by Government
No one wants to talk about Covid-19 anymore. It was such a miserable and difficult period for most people that we all want to go back to our lives as they were before. But that means not enough attention has been paid to the major long-term impact the pandemic has had on public services. And schools are no exception.
Covid-19 is still having an impact on staff availability. But beyond the direct effects of the virus the scars it’s left on the system will take much longer to heal. The impact on pupil attainment has been significant. According to a DfE-funded study, primary pupils were still almost two months behind in maths in the autumn term, and secondary pupils 2.4 months behind in reading, with low income pupils struggling the most (DfE, 2022).
Perhaps more worrying, though, is the broader impact the pandemic has had on pupils’ lives. The number of referrals to Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services has doubled over the past two years, and it had already gone up a lot over the previous decade (Campbell, 2022). Persistent absence also doubled during the pandemic, and remains significantly higher that it was beforehand (Martin, 2022). There are more children on protection plans; more in care; more in need of support for special needs. And all of these challenges are exacerbated by the current inflation-driven increases in poverty, which particularly affect young people and intersect with all the other issues.
This puts pressure on schools, who end up being the “provider of last resort” for pupils’ pastoral problems. As other systems – CAMHS, the NHS, social care etc. – struggle to deal with surging demand, it is often teachers, untrained in these issues, who have to pick up the pieces. This in turn reduces time for focusing on the core business of education, and can lead to worsening retention rates for the profession.
The government’s policy response to this systemic problem – which has been supercharged by the pandemic – has been muted at best. Initially they asked Sir Kevan Collins to make proposals for a package of covid recovery funding but ended up rejecting his plan, and never replaced it with anything else. We’ve had the National Tutoring Programme, which has offered additional support to some pupils, albeit the scheme has run into all sorts of difficulties. But there has been no acknowledgement of the wider challenges schools are facing.
White and green papers
The white paper (DfE, 2022) mainly re-states the existing policy offer for schools – including the welcome increase in professional development support via the Early Career Framework and funded NPQs – but has added little new in terms of direct support. The key section of that paper focused on reform of academy trusts, with the aim of moving to a system where all schools are in trusts of ten schools or more by 2030. The really important point is around the regulation of trusts, which at the moment is poorly done because there are no clear expectations around what they should do. This is important re-wiring that needs to be done, and it is fiendishly tricky, but it won’t have much immediate impact on the problems teachers are facing in schools now.
Likewise, there was much in the SEND green paper (DfE, 2022) that could have a positive benefit down the line. As the paper sets out, there is huge inconsistency in the way different local areas support pupils with SEND at the moment, leading to confusion and frustration for schools and parents. The government propose moving to a more national system where the process is the same everywhere and uses the same tariffs for different conditions. They have also promised reform of the Alternative Provision (AP) system, to make it easier to track pupils as they move between institutions and to give AP providers more stable funding.
This is all good in theory but is a long way off. My guess is that they will struggle to get legislation required to implement the SEND green paper in this Parliament. This is mainly because there are money-saving proposals in the green paper that would reduce choice for parents with education, health and care plans (ECHPs), and also see the introduction of mandatory mediation before local authorities could be taken to tribunals. Which does not feel like an argument the Government will want to have in the immediate run up to an election. So again, these are significant potential system changes, but not ones that are going to have much immediate impact on schools.
A question of funding
This goes to the wider problem the DfE has in providing the kind of support schools need now. They have no money, and the Treasury won’t give them any more. School funding is lower now than it was in 2010, and schools in the most disadvantaged areas have taken the biggest hit. An injection of cash, particularly for those with low income intakes, would at least provide some short term capacity to bring in more non-teaching staff to help with pastoral support (such as councillors and parent support advisers). But this isn’t going to happen given the state of the wider British economy. Indeed inflation is eroding away school budgets through higher heating and food bills.
In the longer term, what the pandemic has revealed is the need for a dramatic increase in investment in the services that sit around schools, and a system that supports that. There are some emerging elements of a potential support system – the SEND green paper (DfE, 2022) and Josh MacAlister’s excellent review of children’s social care (MacAlister, 2022) – but the government needs to bring this all together along with a serious strategy for mental health support. And they need to fund it.
Moreover, they need to work out which part of the system is going to be responsible for delivering and integrating this support. Local authorities have been stripped of funding and capacity, and struggled when they were responsible in previous eras. Academy trusts are, at the moment at least, mostly too small to take on these responsibilities. Mayoral authorities could potentially do more, Andy Burnham’s Greater Manchester Authority is leading the way here, but only some areas have one.
For many teachers, the policy world can feel distant and disconnected from their day-to-day lives, with politicians popping up occasionally only to announce something entirely unhelpful or irrelevant – grammar schools have recently reappeared, yet again, as an imagined solution to a non-existent problem. But the challenges teachers face, that often seem intractable, do have policy answers. Finding them, though, will require honesty about the issues the sector has at the moment, and the true cost of solving them.
Campbell D (2022) Record 420,000 children a month treated for mental health problems. The Guardian, 22 May 2022. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/society/2022/may/22/record-420000-children-in-england-treated-for-mental-health-problems (accessed 22 June 2022).
Department for Education (DfE) (2022) Understanding progress in the 2020/21 Academic Year. Available at: https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/1063488/Understanding_Progress_in_the_2020_to_2021_Academic_Year_Extension_report_covering_the_first_half_of_the_autumn_term_2021.pdf (accessed 22 June 2022).
Department for Education (DfE) (2022) Opportunity for all: strong schools with great teachers for your child. Available at: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/opportunity-for-all-strong-schools-with-great-teachers-for-your-child accessed 22 June 2022).
Department for Education (DfE) (2022) SEND and AP green paper: responding to the consultation. Available at: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/send-and-ap-green-paper-responding-to-the-consultation (accessed 22 June 2022).
MacAlister J (2022) The independent review of children’s social care. Available at: https://childrenssocialcare.independent-review.uk/wp-content/uploads/2022/05/The-independent-review-of-childrens-social-care-Final-report.pdf (accessed 22 June 2022).
Martin M (2022) Covid: Persistent absence doubled during the pandemic. tes magazine, 24 March 2022. Available at: https://www.tes.com/magazine/news/general/covid-persistent-absence-doubled-during-pandemic (accessed 22 June 2022).