Investing in education always makes sense, but never more so than now. As schools begin the task of helping children catch up from 15 months of disrupted learning, they need a government that understands the enormity of the task and works with them. The ambition, determination and skills of teachers are essential but without the resources to go with it, their hands will be tied.
The consequences of the government’s failure to deliver this support was made maddeningly clear by the resignation of the government’s expert education advisor Sir Kevan Collins. The government’s refusal to invest in support for children has driven not just Sir Kevan out of his job, but his expertise and experience out of government and out of the education system.
A leaked report of Sir Kevan’s recommendations demonstrates the urgent need for action. Across the country, children’s time out of school has not just denied them learning experiences, but robbed them of a year of carefree play and socialising with their friends. It is this social and emotional development that parents and teachers are telling us they are most worried about, and will not be solved by the government’s paltry offer of less than an hour of tutoring a fortnight.
And while all children need the chance to grow through new opportunities, not all children have been equally impacted by pandemic disruption. While higher numbers of children having to isolate away from school in areas like Greater Manchester hit the news, the hidden impact of poverty hampers families’ efforts to keep children learning at home. Children cannot learn if they’re hungry or if they were left without the laptops or internet connections needed to access remote lessons. But, time and again, the government had to be shamed into feeding children and was woefully slow in providing laptops to families who desperately needed them.
Matching the ambition for children’s recovery that Sir Kevan has called for, Labour has published a comprehensive plan to enable every child to bounce back from the pandemic. Built on the understanding that learning and wellbeing go hand-in-hand, Labour’s plan would boost wellbeing and social development with new extracurricular clubs and activities around the school day, targeted tutoring and support for children who have missed out the most, and an extension to free school meals this summer ensuring no child goes hungry over the holidays.
This is the kind of ambition that would genuinely level up opportunities, creating an equal playing field for the children whose parents cannot afford dance, music or sports clubs but who could thrive given the opportunity. The Conservatives have talked about spreading opportunities across the country, but where was this commitment when their own education advisor warned that pupils across the North are an extra month of learning behind and ministers still refused to fund the activities needed to help them catch up?
The pandemic has exposed not just the failures of the last year, but the failures of a decade of austerity. Class sizes have soared to their highest level since 2001, school budgets have faced the largest cut in 40 years and thousands of childcare providers have been forced to close, taking learning opportunities away from our youngest children. Meanwhile, the pandemic has driven more families into poverty. In Birmingham, one in three children have become eligible for free school meals as families have increasingly struggled to make ends meet.
The government’s failures display a fundamental lack of aspiration for children’s futures. Children are optimistic and ambitious. They believe they have the potential to do amazing things – from becoming astronauts to the next Marcus Rashford. It is only by matching their ambition that we will deliver the opportunities every child needs to reach their full potential.
The last Labour government made education its top priority, recognising it is fundamental to transforming every child’s life chances. It invested in schools and teachers and standards improved across the country. We believe that Labour’s new children’s recovery plan lives up to that ambition, with detailed proposals that would deliver new opportunities for every child to play, learn and develop post pandemic.
But in refusing to provide the resources to create the post-pandemic opportunities our children deserve, the government is not just betraying its own levelling-up commitment but the ambitions of a generation of children.