October 2021 edition: The Education Recovery Plan

The Education Recovery Plan

School Trusts have been at the forefront of managing the vast disruption of the pandemic. No one in education is under any illusion that recovery from the past two years will be straightforward. Problems we knew already existed within the education system have been further exposed and their impacts heightened. For this reason, a group of Trusts have worked with CST alongside representatives of other phases of education, to pull together an Education Recovery Plan. The ERP seeks to secure temporary funding for schools and post-16 institutions to help them mitigate the immediate consequences of the pandemic, whilst proposing clear plans for investment in early years provision and mental health services for young people, to reduce the long-term pressures on schools.

Over the last decade, we did see a reduction in the gap between the outcomes for the wealthiest students and the most disadvantaged. The pandemic ended that hopeful trend and it will take a lot to put it back on track — the ERP recommends we start with the most persistently disadvantaged, supported by a "catch-up premium”. The Education Policy Institute (EPI) suggested that an operationalisable definition of persistent disadvantage would be those who have been in receipt of free school meals for 80% of their time in school. The ERP suggests £1.2bn a year be put into this catch-up premium, providing £1,250 extra per eligible pupil to their schools.

As well as investing to ensure schools can build on effective practice in early years, we must invest in mental health provision to stop schools being overwhelmed by young people with needs far beyond that which a pastoral team might be expected to meet.

John Blake

Post-16 funding does not have a similar mechanism on which a catch-up premium can piggyback, but institutions do receive a portion of their funding based on the number of students with low prior attainment in English and Maths. The ERP suggests that this "block” of funding be doubled, at an estimated cost of £300m a year for three years.

This additional funding is explicitly time limited, so that it can be focused immediately on those young people recovering from the pandemic. No doubt there will be future discussions about the appropriate levels of funding for education, and the impacts of the pandemic will continue to be part of that calculation. The ERP also seeks to reduce the impact of issues which are properly the province of other service-providers, but often arrive at the door of schools. Key amongst these are early years and mental health provision.

During the second national lockdown, the nursery sector — despite being non-statutory — was the one element of education kept open to everyone. Even so, we have seen a substantial drop in take-up amongst two-year olds eligible for 15 free hours, the government’s flagship early years policy. Latest figures show just 62% of families are now taking up the offer. This creates a vicious circle: low rates of take-up make it economically unviable to provide places in poorer areas, where top-up funding from parents cannot be used to cross-subsidise. 232 nurseries closed in the last year, a 35% increase from the year before. The ERP recommends adding £150m to the early years budget to expand that two-year-old offer and keep open more nursery provision.

As well as investing to ensure schools can build on effective practice in early years, we must invest in mental health provision to stop schools being overwhelmed by young people with needs far beyond that which a pastoral team might be expected to meet. Prior to the pandemic, schools and colleges were already finding worsening mental health amongst young people a serious challenge  now 67% of young people believe the pandemic would have a long-term impact on their mental health. Referrals of young people have more than doubled in the past year.

Mental Health Support Teams were being piloted before Covid-19. They provide early intervention on some mental health and emotional wellbeing issues, such as mild to moderate anxiety, as well as helping staff within a school or college setting to provide a ‘whole school approach’ to mental health and wellbeing. There will not be enough of these created during this Parliament unless the project is given more resource and a speedier timetable. Government should commit to at least two MHSTs in every local authority by 2025, at a cost of £250m per year once all teams are established.

The problems Covid-19 has created or exacerbated for our society, across every age group, every class, every community, are profound. There will be many calls on the public purse in the years ahead. The ERP, by laying out a plan for sensible investment in education and allied services for young people now, seeks to support our young people but also to reduce those costs in the future. Everyone who has worked in schools has seen the costs to the system and the personal tragedy embodied in young people who fall out or fall behind in education. We should invest now to ensure both are avoided in the future.