Thursday 3 June 2021

'Recovery Commissioner' resigns - demand the funding our schools and colleges need

So, having commissioned Sir Kevan Collins to report on the investment needed to (in their words) "catch-up" after the pandemic, the Treasury have refused to foot the bill of £15bn, instead stumping up less than 10% of what was asked for. That's just £6,000 a year for an average primary school.

In response, Collins has resigned, saying "I do not believe it is credible that a successful recovery can be achieved with a programme of support of this size".

On this, Collins is of course absolutely correct. But it isn't just the funding for 'recovery' that is woefully inadequate. As the NEU and the School Cuts campaign have been arguing for years, education as a whole needs permanent and ongoing investment to make sure the staffing is in place to make sure all needs are met and our large class sizes are reduced.

Expert analysis shows that schools and colleges have suffered from years of real-term spending cuts. Many schools have been announcing further job cuts for the end of this academic year, with support staff posts particularly vulnerable. The pandemic has also hit the Early Years sector particularly hard whilst the critical underfunding of SEND budgets has only got worse. 

Is an extended school day the best use of increased funds?

Given our long-standing campaign for increased education spending, it is laughable that Tory Minister Nadhim Zahawi  has tried to blame teaching unions for Collins' resignation! Zahawi complains that unions "resisted the idea of extending the school day in the first place". But there's no contradiction between questioning the extension of the school day and demanding proper investment in quality education.

Making tired children sit in class, or with tutors, for even longer days of "catch-up cramming" isn't what's needed. It could even do more harm than good by driving out any love of learning. 

And, in practice, the pressure to staff an extra half an hour or so on the day would be on existing teachers and support staff. But, (as discussed separately), we are already at breaking point with our existing workload. Proper investment in additional staffing is vitally needed, not cheap-rate tutoring schemes - and that would be best primarily spent on support within the existing school day, rather than in extending it.

First and foremost, class sizes need to be cut. The UK has some of the largest numbers in school classes globally, especially in primary schools:

Cutting class sizes would ensure pupils had more individual attention, and would also reduce teacher workload as well. 

Reducing class sizes and increasing in-class support also ensures that children receive support alongside their peers, rather than being withdrawn from them. This is significant because, rather than mistakenly emphasising so-called 'lost learning' against the demands of a fixed curriculum, the main need for "catch-up" for children who have suffered most in the pandemic is their social skills and general well-being. That's because they have had less opportunity to be able to play and interact with their peers.

So, while some additional high quality individual or small group tutoring might be needed, maximising learning within the whole-class setting has important advantages for learning in a wider sense. There's also a need for schools to be able to provide greater pastoral support, with additional mentors and counsellors as well, particularly to support mental health.

These are decisions that schools should be given the flexibility to decide as best meets their circumstances  but, above all, with the funding necessary to be able to meet those needs.

No to schools operating longer 'exam factory' shifts

If schools are going to offer extended sessions, then they should not be focussed on formal learning but instead offer after-school opportunities for children to interact and play with their peers in a different way. After-school sessions should concentrate on activities such as sport, drama, art and music that many families cannot afford to pay for their children to participate in. Staffing should be recruited additionally, rather than increasing existing staff workload further.

Sadly, Williamson and the Treasury's actions over the last 24 hours confirm that they aren't interested in genuinely investing in the future. Instead they are looking to get by on the cheap by trying to force overworked staff and stressed students to simply work for longer. Together, parents, staff and students must say no - and unions prepare action to oppose any attempt to impose a further worsening of conditions.

Indeed, we should go further and demand the additional investment our schools and colleges need and a new National Contract for all staff that includes trade-union negotiated class size and staffing policies that makes sure there is sufficient staffing in place to meet needs - as well as limiting workload.

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