On 2 June the government announced a £1.4bn “Covid Catch-up” programme for pupils and students, to cover up to six million sets of 15-hour tutoring courses for disadvantaged pupils and expansion of an existing fund for helping 16- to 19-year-olds with subjects such as English and maths.
Kevan Collins, the government’s “Catch-up tsar” resigned after the announcement. According to the Financial Times, he and education secretary Gavin Williamson wanted to pay teachers to extend the school day by 30 minutes, and that was vetoed by chancellor Rishi Sunak on grounds of cost.
Sunak spent £0.84 billion in four weeks of August 2020 on subsidies for restaurant-owners and well-off diners-out by “Eat Out to Help Out”, increasing “second-wave” Covid deaths by maybe thousands. The £1.4 billion is less than twice that, over three years, for around nine million school students in England alone.
Little Covid support funding has gone to the Department for Education — less than a 1/20th that channelled through Revenue and Customs, less than a 1/10th that through Business and Energy, and also less than 1/10th that through the Treasury.
And the whole debate around “catch-up” is misfocused and hypocritical. The idea that education is essentially about filling students and pupils with “knowledge”, so we now need extra shovelling-in to make up for schools being closed in the pandemic, is deeply flawed.
Children and young people construct an understanding of the world, and develop the skills that they need to navigate that world, through stimulus and experimentation, most effectively in a collective setting. Individual tutoring can play a role but cannot replace a creative, stimulating classroom. Extending the school day is not the answer, either. The “productivity” in school diminishes as you extend the hours, particularly for younger children. Half-an-hour a day would add little to learning but a large cost to the mental health and well-being of children and young people and of school workers.
And in fact schools face cuts, not a choice between this or that expansion of resources to “catch up”. Schools in cities across the country are making redundancies.
Falling rolls, probably due to Brexit, a demographic dip, and Covid-induced house-moves away from cities; 13 years of no real increase in schools’ budgets; extra spending by schools on Covid measures; and a new funding formula that takes money from inner city schools, have combined into a “perfect-storm” funding crisis.
The redundancies fall disproportionately on support staff, in particular Classroom Assistants and Teaching Assistants, and thus will especially hit students with special educational needs or who have problems accessing the curriculum. Class sizes will also increase.
More adults in classes to support the students, and smaller classes, would be the surest way to ensure rapid and meaningful learning. Yet under the blather about “catch-up”, class sizes grow and existing support for learners is removed.
Socialists reject the discourse of “catch-up”. We oppose the lengthening of the school day; demand no redundancies in schools; fight instead for a permanent, significant increase in funding for schools; and demand the permanent scrapping of GCSEs and high-stakes tests in primaries (something that really would free resources for more learning).
We need to rouse the labour movement and, in the first place, school unions and the Labour Party, to take up these demands.