A big picture recovery is required

Written by: Matthew Dodd | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

Recovery from the setbacks of the pandemic runs deeper than just education, and it is time the government acknowledged this, says Matthew Dodd

More than 100 charities, unions and educators joined forces in June. Their message to the prime minister was simple: helping children recover from the pandemic needs to go beyond what happens in schools. What did they mean?

The powerful coalition, coordinated by the National Children’s Bureau (NCB), was not suggesting that education is not vitally important: it is. But while the school closures of the last year have certainly had a crushing effect on the learning and education of many children, the damage runs deeper.

For children with poor mental health, disabled children, and those in urgent need of support from social services, extra tutoring cannot address the underlying inequalities they face.

This point needed making because when Sir Kevan Collins, the Department for Education’s (former) recovery commissioner, asked for £15bn to meet the challenge, his focus was primarily on education. His plans responded ambitiously to the “levelling up” and “building back better” rhetoric so prominent in government announcements over the last six months.

And Sir Kevan wasn’t the only one aiming high. The Education Policy Institute (EPI) made a similar estimation, calculating that £13.5bn was required to counteract children’s lost opportunities in education.

This level of investment could certainly have resulted in far-reaching action in schools. For example, it could have been used to extend the school day by 30 minutes (in a flexible and fully funded way) for extra lessons or for sports or other activities to enrich children’s lives.

Or it could have been used to develop the education workforce to focus on supporting disadvantaged students, or to involve parents, carers and communities in learning, as suggested by another formidable group of educators, unions and business leaders brought together by the Fair Education Alliance.

But when only a tenth of this amount was promised by Gavin Williamson, with the lion’s share allocated to extra tutoring for the pupils who need it most, there was little hope any would be left over to address other thorny issues that mar children’s lives, like unhealthy living conditions or overcrowding.

This was the point that the children’s sector wanted to make: that education alone can’t turn around the disadvantages that many children experience.

The simple fact is that poverty is the driver for many of the problems that children face, and it certainly has a serious knock-on effect on how they perform at school. Yet despite levels of child poverty rising year after year, little is done to address it.

The End Child Poverty campaign’s recent analysis showed that after housing costs are factored in, London dominates the list of areas with the highest rates of child poverty, while the Northeast has seen the greatest increases.

In constituencies the length and breadth of the country, there are areas where the majority of children grow up in families who can barely afford the basic necessities of life.

Yet the government has ducked the issue, with Boris Johnson criticised by the statistics watchdog for using different child poverty measures selectively to answer questions in Parliament.

Similarly, this generation of children faces unprecedented challenges to their mental health, with the scale of the problem exacerbated by the pandemic. Recently, calculations by the Centre for Mental Health estimated that an extra 1.5 million children and young people will require mental health support because of the pandemic during the next three to five years, far exceeding the capacity of child mental health services to respond.

The shortcomings in the vision for children’s recovery is evident in the scant attention paid to the earliest years. Very young children, from conception to age two, are not part of the education recovery plans. Early years settings have only been earmarked to receive a fraction of the total funding allocated to education recovery and they urgently need investment in training so they can support the personal, social and emotional development of children in the same way schools do.

Furthermore, services for families that can help prevent children reaching a crisis, where interventions by social workers are necessary, are being ignored in government spending plans.

The NCB and Cambridge University recently found convincing evidence that early help improves the lives of children and families (HYPERLINK), preventing unnecessary distress and harm which would require considerable extra expense to the public purse to put right.

Yet central government funding for children’s services continues to wither and local authorities are forced to focus scant resources on crisis interventions by social workers.

With the final hurdles in the return to “normality” in sight, it is time to put these problems right and stop the blinkered approach that only sees recovery in terms of education.

The government must produce a new vision of childhood to support babies, children, young people and their families to recover from the impact of Covid-19. Their voices must be at the heart of plans to rebuild, backed by renewed investment in the services and workforce that they rely on.

This will require action across Whitehall and in town halls to improve the quality of education, health, early years, youth and social care services. It must be accompanied by a commitment to protect children facing additional challenges, like those with disabilities, those from minority communities, and those growing up in poverty.

It is clear that the effects of the pandemic have been felt by every child in the country. But if we only focus on education when working to lift them up from these setbacks then our conception of what is important in the lives of our children is too narrow. The recovery must be built on the big picture.

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