Fixing the education ship now, means fewer life rafts later

By Carole Willis, NFER Chief Executive

Monday 25 October 2021

Sadly there is no silver bullet to rid us of the wide-ranging societal traumas of Covid, but investing in education could be as close as we get.

This week will see the Government launch its Comprehensive Spending Review. The National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER) recommends that it focuses on children and young people

Earlier in the pandemic, the Prime Minister was reported to have viewed education as a central plank of the country’s recovery plans. Now is the time to deliver.

Allowing young people to suffer from adverse social and labour market impacts for years to come as a result of missed schooling would be catastrophic for both the economy and the individuals involved. By investing in their recovery now, we may be able to prevent this from happening. 

In short, if we fix the ship now, we may not need life rafts later.

Our research, published in July 2021, showed that Covid-19 had already cost Key Stage 1 children around three months of learning in reading and maths. Meanwhile, the disadvantage gap has widened for 5-7 year olds due to the disruption caused by the pandemic. Study after study shows the damaging effects on children’s learning across the age spectrum. 

The IFS recently projected the economic costs if children were to lose just half a year of schooling by the time the pandemic retreats. It suggested it would equate to a child losing £40,000 of income over their lifetime – that’s a staggering £350bn in lost lifetime earnings across the 8.7 million school children in the UK.

More bluntly for the Chancellor this means more than £100bn less tax revenue to spend on investing in the economy, public services or paying off our accumulating debts. 

As well as the impact on the individual, missed schooling represents a critical long-term risk for the future wealth and prosperity of this country. And that’s before we even factor in the fact that new technologies, coupled with major demographic and environmental change, are predicted to create new challenges for the labour market over the coming decades. 

It is essential that the Government invests in pupils’ mental health and wellbeing as well as their academic recovery. NHS data shows that in 2020, one in six children aged five to 16 were identified as having a probable mental disorder, increasing from one in nine in 2017. Meanwhile, research by the National Centre for Social Research shows that pupils cannot, and will not, learn as effectively if they are suffering from mental health issues such as anxiety or depression, meaning academic and wellbeing recovery must be funded simultaneously.

There is also a strong economic and social case for targeting additional funding to address the persistent inequalities in attainment between pupils from different backgrounds. But the value of the pupil premium - the main grant used to target funding towards disadvantaged pupils - has been eroded over time. Today, every disadvantaged primary pupil attracts around £100 less through the pupil premium, compared to what pupil premium funding would have been if it had been uprated in line with inflation (based on Consumer Price Inflation) since 2014/15. This puts the one-off £145 recovery premium per pupil which schools are receiving to support their disadvantaged pupils this year in context.

Sufficient funding could help secure a sustained subsidy for one-to-one and small group tutoring and allow us to tackle the long standing gaps in attainment between disadvantaged children and their peers. Small group tutoring could become a permanent part of the landscape.

Cash is also urgently required to ensure schools can cover the additional costs of dealing with Covid-19, and demographic challenges. Around 1,500 schools in 2020/21 were unable to meet unexpected pandemic costs from either existing reserves or recent funding increases. They have been forced to factor in the extra costs associated with sanitation, signage and social distancing while many income streams from fundraising events have been hit hard by successive lockdowns. Primary schools across the country are also finding their budgets stretched due to falling pupil numbers, despite the fact that many face limited scope for cost savings. 

Now is also the time to increase teachers’ pay to ensure it remains competitive with other professions. By doing this we can retain the large numbers who were attracted into the profession over the last two years. This would also encourage more experienced and vital school leaders to remain in the profession after an exhausting and deeply challenging two years, avoiding a return to the bad old days of teacher supply shortages.

With this consistency of personnel we can develop and train experienced teachers to the highest standards and keep them in the profession long enough for them to mentor a new generation. Teaching quality is the most significant school-based factor affecting children’s attainment.

Investing in our teachers and our young people now will help all corners of society in the long-run. We simply cannot afford to neglect them now and allow lower skills and wider inequalities to fester, weakening the foundations for future generations.


This op-ed was first published in Schools Week on 22nd October 2021.