October 2021 edition: The Big Answers: Building a New Deal for England's Children

The Big Answers: Building a New Deal for England's Children

Firstly, I want to acknowledge just how extraordinarily hard this year has been for us - for students, for trainee teachers, for leaders – so thank you for all you have done and will do in this new academic year.

It’s been especially hard for children, and they are who I want to tell you a story about. This story is not just about children but it’s also by England’s children – over half a million of them. It’s the story of what happened to them during the pandemic, told to us through a survey I commissioned earlier this year – the Big Ask.

But as you may be familiar with this report, I want to take this further and discuss Big Ideas.

Let me suggest two ideas for your consideration. Firstly, we are entering a new intellectual age. I believe great and traumatic events produce tremendous amount of new thinking about how to grapple with the consequences and the future.

My second proposition is that children are already showing us the way forward, and it is adults who need to catch-up. In The Big Ask they have described a vision of a fairer, greener world - how determined they are to build it, and how they need the help of adults to make it happen. There may be some symmetry here, between young and old, both seeking new answers to big problems.

Overall, children described an ambitious, socially cohesive, reforming vision of the world they want to live in. Simply, children value a society where all can feel a sense of achievement and self-worth.

Rachel de Souza

Paul Collier has written that when society is going through a transition, outdated ideas will not do. For a society to continue functioning, new and better ideas must spread. Such changes are "inflection points”- moments when the direction of the collective mind reverses. It’s clear that big change tends to emerge from serious discussion. The same is true when it comes to working out how best to support children through this recovery.

Children have suffered during the pandemic – especially the vulnerable – and made many sacrifices. Learning loss, cut off from friends and play, and supporting struggling parents and siblings. But they are determined to put the pandemic behind them.

The majority of English children are happy and optimistic. They care not just about their own priorities, but about creating happier communities. When asked if there were spheres of life where they wanted to be happier, the main issues were remarkably consistent across all identity groups: things to do in their local area, experience of school, mental health.

Overall, children described an ambitious, socially cohesive, reforming vision of the world they want to live in. Simply, children value a society where all can feel a sense of achievement and self-worth.

My take on this generation is as follows. This is not a snowflake generation – they are a heroic generation. I think children deserve to be celebrated for what they achieved in very difficult circumstances.

Rather than this being the end of the story, my argument is that adults and policymakers now have a duty to keep listening – building a bigger narrative. For Collier this is a critical part of reforming social policy – building a narrative which resets attitudes from dismissal to interest.

What could this look like in school? To capitalise on children’s new-found appreciation of schools, we should both keep the best of the status quo, and, in the light of the Big Ask, do something radical to support children.

The first priority is to bolster catch-up funding for schools; we should then use this effort to embed high-quality, early-intervention support in the long-term – both pastorally and academically. Very simply, if we keep expectations high – we must also give students the support they need to reach those standards, especially the vulnerable.

Support can mean a number of different things: teacher development; access to the curriculum; being sensitive with those where the return to school has been particularly challenging.

I support targeted intervention for the most disadvantaged. These children are far more likely to leave school without basic qualifications in English and Maths, and, if we do not act, that proportion is going to get larger. Work must continue on Early Years, the SEND review, alternative provision, and strengthening of mental health services.

What we are describing here is a system with the following commitments to children:

  • We have high expectations, and we believe you can get there.

  • We will give you every chance of meeting expectations, and we will not let you fall behind.

  • If there are barriers to your success, you will be given the support you need.

  • 'Success’ does not have to mean university it could be any route of training or employment - there is more than one pathway to affording a secure adulthood.

These commitments could be misread as an impracticable guarantee of success for all children. Rather, these commitments guarantee a fair chance to all pupils, whatever their circumstances.

But taking the long-term view, in an age of big ideas, are we being ambitious enough? It may be that even better answers lie beyond the policy options currently on the table. The Big Ask is only the beginning of an ongoing dialogue.

This vision is large. A new deal for England’s children. It would mean a great national conversation. But out of hardship, England has a history of emerging stronger than before. Some argued we could not afford the NHS. It has now lasted for over 70 years, and we cannot imagine life without it.

To invert a famous line from a favourite song of my childhood, we might not have been looking for a ‘new England’, but, in this post-pandemic moment, we’ve got one.

It is now up to us to help children make it as good as we possibly can.