The moral vacancy of further school disruption
If we have learned one thing over the last three years, it’s that schools are as critical a part of our national infrastructure as any blue-light service.
Seeing that we are in the midst of a ‘winter of discontent’, following months of covid restrictions which normalised school closures, perhaps it could be expected that our children’s education would be a natural casualty of industrial action. Although this week’s National Education Union ballot result in favour of strikes in England and Wales was no great surprise, it should make us stop and contemplate how we in Britain value our children so little that we can force them to endure another round of disruption to both their education and lives.
However valid the debate around school budgets and teachers’ pay there must be a question as to whether a union that played a causal role in ensuring that the economy reached breaking point has any remaining moral right to point to that destruction to justify demands for pay increases. Regardless of that debate, however, it is inarguable that – after just emerging from the greatest period of educational disruption since the Victorians introduced compulsory schooling – we should not be asking children to miss another day of lessons. That this situation is readily accepted by so many is a symptom of this country’s disregard - perhaps, even disdain - for its children and young people.
Pandemic restrictions have had a cataclysmic impact on kids
Pandemic restrictions impacted children and young people more than any other group in society. Although the young were at the least risk from covid, pubs opened before children were allowed to return to school. Children in year 11, due to take their GCSEs this spring, have only had one undisrupted year of learning since they started secondary school. On the back of lockdowns, youth mental health diagnoses have skyrocketed, and one in four primary children is now obese by the age of 11. Despite political promises on ‘levelling up’, the attainment gap between rich and poor pupils has gone backwards after decades of growth. Additionally, university drop-out rates have increased, children turning five are less school ready than ever before, and the number of Reception-age children who need speech and language support has increased by 10%.
The past three years have been so damaging that one in four children is now persistently absent from school, with Ofsted Chief Amanda Spielman stating that the “social contract between educator and parent has broken down”. Despite all the evidence of harm from this country’s covid response, children’s interests – including funding their education – still do not feature in the national debate.
Education has been consistently underfunded
Whilst the problems are not exclusively about funding, underfunding of education has characterised the past one and a half decades. Twenty years ago, education and healthcare accounted for roughly equal shares of GDP. Today, total health spending is roughly double that of the education budget. The £2.3bn allocated to schools in the 2022 Autumn Statement will just about take spending back to 2010 levels, but as the Institute for Fiscal Studies points out, “No real-terms growth in school spending per pupil over a 14-year period still represents a significant squeeze on school resources”. The funding for the 5% pay rise from September for most teachers, announced in July 2022, is due to come partly from school budgets, which means less money spent on pupils. The Oasis Academy Trust says this pay rise is costing their schools £4m – money that would have been spent on their pupils’ education. Coupled with the rising cost of energy, food and other necessities, it's not hard to see why head teachers are in despair.
Indeed, all is clearly not well in the teaching world: teacher recruitment is hitting new lows, with only 59% of the secondary target met in 2022-23; the shortfall in Physics teachers was over 80%. Teaching Assistants (who are not striking in England, but are in Wales) are often the members of staff who work with the most vulnerable pupils, yet as one of our TA members told us, “My teenage son has just completed his lifeguarding training and is now working poolside. He earns more than I do. I’m just lucky that my husband earns enough money to make it possible for me to do this role. I don’t know how single parents cope.”
University staff have a slogan about how their working conditions are students' learning conditions, and it is similar in schools. Without teachers and teaching assistants, there can be no education, so something must be done to ensure that our children are educated by the best and by those that feel rewarded in their job. But is increasing pay the only answer, as the unions are saying? Would a pay increase actually support pupils when 69% of staff cite the volume of workload as the main reason for thinking of leaving the profession? This situation is exacerbated when staff are not replaced, and children’s behaviour and school readiness have deteriorated due to school closures. Support functions such as mental health, youth and special educational needs services just are not there to take the pressure off staff. Increased pay always helps a bit, but can also function as a sticking plaster to the real problem.
‘Education, Education, Education’ is no longer a vote winner
The grim reality is that as a country, we are just not that interested in education. In fact, only 10% of today’s voters consider it one of their top priorities. To put this in context, at the height of Tony Blair’s ‘Education, Education, Education’ era, this figure was around 45%. Despite the PM’s acknowledgement that “education is a silver bullet”, with this low level of interest, it is not surprising that there is no real debate about how to make good the damage that school closures inflicted on our children, or how to ensure that schools can flourish for staff and pupils alike. Sadly, this situation is unlikely to change whichever party is in power – young people simply do not count. There are 14.6m people under 18 and 10.7m over 65, but that smaller (albeit growing) group has a disproportionate share of influence on our politicians due to their ability to vote. This is why pension triple locks get the nod through, and the schools covid recovery tsar feels forced to resign.
Whatever the rights and wrongs of the funding argument, a situation where adults argue amongst themselves as children remain in “heightened states of distress for years following the educational, social and economic upheaval of Covid 19” is morally indefensible. If we have learned one thing over the last three years, it’s that schools are as critical a part of our national infrastructure as any blue-light service. Whether schools are kept open by way of a pay compromise, increased educational funding or robust contingency plans, that is now what must happen.