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Harlow MP details what the challenges are ahead for education

Education / Fri 5th Mar 2021 at 12:29pm

HARLOW MP Robert Halfon has made a speech to the National Education Summit where he has detailed what he sees as the challenges to education as we emerge out of lockdown.

Mr Halfon is also chair of the education committee.

He said:

“It is a pleasure to join you for the FED National Education Summit, in what has been a year like no other for education.

I extend my thanks to all the teachers and support staff.

Everything that has been spoken about in education in recent months has related to “catch-up” and “recovery” of lost learning.

Indeed, when the Education Secretary delivered his speech to the FED on Monday, he said:

“Catching up is the educational challenge of the decade.”

No doubt, there is a lot to claw back.

Despite the remarkable efforts of our education workforce, too many children will have been left-behind. Their learning hindered by a lack of suitable laptop or tablet – or perhaps the motivation to switch it on. By poor mental health and feelings of social isolation. And, in the worst cases, by a toxic home environment.

We’re all guilty of using these words. But phrasing everything in terms of “catch-up” risks not only eroding children’s confidence and piling on pressure, but signals a lack of ambition for the ‘Covid generation’.

I believe we have far greater challenges ahead.

Even before coronavirus (“B.C.”), disadvantaged pupils were 18.4 months behind their better-off peers by the time they sat their GCSEs.

Progress on closing the attainment gap had ground to a screeching halt.

At the same time, the relentless focus on “university, university, university” came at the expense of meeting our nation’s skills deficit.

In 2019, nearly a quarter of all vacancies were skills shortage vacancies. 214,000 roles where employers couldn’t find the right skills to fill the position.

And this was an increase of 2 percentage points on 2017. 

Meanwhile, apprenticeship-starts by those aged 16 to 19 dropped 15% in the first half of the last academic year.

We simply cannot afford to trudge along as before, resorting to the same tactics and techniques.

We need a comprehensive, long-term plan for education.

  1. First, this starts with intervention in the early-years.

When kids returned to nurseries in the Autumn, the detrimental impact of lockdown on their development was patently visible.

In an Ofsted survey of early years providers published in November, children were said to be “disorientated”, “anxious” and“slower to join in”.

The Government responded with a package worth £18 million to support early language development.

Don’t get me wrong. This investment is hugely important.

And it is a testament to Ministers and the early years workforce that nurseries remained open during this last lockdown.

But, even the newly appointed Education Recovery Commissioner, appearing before our Committee on Tuesday, recognised that £18 million was “not sufficient”.

Not when considering the total £1.7bn spending on catch-up.

And not when we know that 40% of the GCSE attainment gap has emerged by the age of 5.

This gulf will never close unless there is a plan for education that delivers cradle-to-career support for children and their families.

We do not need to reinvent the wheel.

Family hubs provide traditional early years help, but integrate a whole lot more: new parent services; childcare and early education; couple and relationship support; mental health counselling; and employment and training programmes.

The Virgin Care hub in my own constituency of Harlow is a great example; nearly 93% of parents’ felt their parenting abilities improved having accessed services.

Hubs like Reach Academy Feltham are linked to schools with remarkable results.

Almost half of children are eligible for the pupil premium, and yet their Progress 8 scores place the school 15th nationally.

So, I was heartened that the Government championed family hubs in its manifesto. But quickly disappointed when it set aside £2.5 million for further research.

Enough research and reviews. Why not get on and deliver?

There are also other opportunities for early interventions that we are currently missing.

Only around 80% of children receive all five of the health visits they are entitled to.

These are priceless touchpoints.

Manchester has set the bar here. Practitioners visit children eight times between the ages 0 to 5 and look out for a range of early alarm bells.

This is not revolutionary.

It’s fine-tuning the mechanisms that already exist to transform the life chances of children who might otherwise be forgotten by the system.

  1. Second, getting the basic building blocks right means we can turn to a plan for those pupils already in school.

There is no use investing billions of pounds in catch-up unless children are present – physically and mentally – when schools return.

A long-term plan for education should look at the non-academic factors that affect children’s performance in the classroom.

Like the fact that one in three primary-school-aged child is overweight or obese.

Or that the number of young people with a probable mental illness has risen to one in six (up from one in nine), according to the Prince’s Trust.

This cannot be stressed enough. Pupils’ wellbeing predicts their later academic progression.

For example, the DfE’s own pre-pandemic study found that children with better mental health at seven-years-old had a value-added Key Stage 2 score equivalent to more than one term’s progress above those pupils with poorer wellbeing.

One option is to extend the school day – to encompass extra-curricular physical activity, mental health support, as well as academic tuition.

All this could be predominantly supported by local community groups, education charities, other schools and universities.

There are already more than 30,000 STEM Ambassadors across the country – volunteers ready and willing to help.

The benefits are well-documented:

  • In 2017, DCMS found that underachieving young people who participated in extra-curricular sports increased their numeracy skills by 29% above those who did not.
  • Children engaged in school sports clubs are 20% less likely to suffer from mental health disorders.
  • And, there is opportunity to bring down youth crime, as half of under-16 knife crime takes place between 4 and 6pm.

Attendance will be key, particularly by those hardest-to-reach disadvantaged pupils – a challenge not to be underestimated.

According to polling by IntegratED, 37% of teachers in our most deprived schools reported an increase in truanting (for reasons unrelated to Covid-19) during the first Autumn term back.

But, as Sir Nicholas Winton said: “If it is not impossible, there must be a way to do it.”

Sports can make the extra hours more enticing.

And, unlike Summer Schools, children are already through the school gates.

If we are really serious about tackling the mental health crisis, the Government needs to rocket-boost their existing proposals and station mental health practitioners in every school, available online and in person.

Proper wellbeing support has a proven impact on social justice.

74% of young people had fewer fixed-term exclusions when they received counselling through the charity, Place2Be.

Our interventions must also be better targeted.

Disadvantaged children have been hit hardest by this pandemic.

Early estimates from the EEF suggested the attainment gap had widened by 36% in August.

It is welcome that the newly-announced £302 million Recovery Premium will be delivered through the Pupil Premium.

But would it not be better to refocus the premium so it is more heavily weighted towards the long-term disadvantaged and reform how that money should be used?

Schools receive funding for any pupil who has been eligible for free school meals at any point in the last six years.

And the Sutton Trust’s 2019 survey of school leaders found that 22% of primary and 27% of secondary heads have “used [the funding] to plug gaps elsewhere in their school’s budget”.

Further, some £96 million is spent on Opportunity Areas – though their impact is far from conclusive.

This could be spent on boosting teaching quality in our most disadvantaged areas; by incentivising top-quality teacher training providers to work with disadvantaged schools, and introducing bursaries, retention payments and salary bonuses for good teachers in challenging areas, to avoid flight of local talent. 

  1. Third, with unemployment expected to rise to 2.6 million by the second quarter of 2021, education needs a tighter focus on skills.

Apprenticeships can play a vital role in our economic recovery.

For every £1 invested in a Level 3 apprenticeship, the economy receives £28.

Apprentices earn while they learn. And they aren’t lumbered with student debt.

The public sector must lead the way. The existing 2.3 percent target is far too low.

The Apprenticeship Levy should be reformed to benefit companies that invest in our country’s skills needs and give opportunities to those from disadvantaged backgrounds.

Of course, I couldn’t deliver a speech on education without mentioning degree apprenticeships.

Over the next decade, universities should work towards a target of 50% of their students undertaking degree-level apprenticeships.

If the recent upwards trend continues, with some serious policy encouragement, it could take just ten years to make this a reality.

Learning and training shouldn’t stop, however, when a person leaves the education system.

Participation in adult education is at its lowest level in 23 years.

The Government’s Lifetime Skills Guarantee is a superb initiative, offering flexible finance and free Level 3 courses to adults without prior qualifications.

But let’s be bolder.

By establishing a community learning centre in every town.

By introducing “Individual Learning Accounts”, funded through the National Skills Fund, to give learners agency to ‘hop on and off’ their training, recognising that, sometimes, life (or a pandemic) just gets in the way.

By nursing part-time Higher Education back to health. Over the ten years up to 2018, the number of part-time undergraduates fell by more than 50%.

Covid-19 has certainly emphasised the importance of remote education. The Government should extend maintenance funding to part-time distance learners.

  1. Finally, if there is one silver lining to the heavy coronavirus cloud, it is the national conversation that has been sparked about whether our education system in the round is fit for purpose.

A rigorous curriculum and traditional methods of behaviour management are, of course, important.

But, we also need to deal with the complex challenges that exist in some children’s lives.

As well as learning, education must be about outcomes, closing the attainment gap and meeting our skills deficit.

Ministers should now consider the makeup of the school day and year; the layout of the classroom;  methods of teaching; the nature of the curriculum and assessment.

Whether, for instance, it would be better to replace A Levels with a wider baccalaureate at 18, that blends technical, vocational and academic learning, as 150+ countries leading the way on skills already do.

Before we make changes, nothing is more important than understanding the nature of the disruption that artificial intelligence and automation will cause to our economy and society.

The Government should establish a Special Royal Commission that would report within 9 months and include the finest experts in AI, data and learning analysts, economics and education.

A long-term plan for education requires a focus on skills, social justice, standards and support for the profession.

Let’s not be afraid to debate the best future for our education system as we emerge from this virus.

Education is, of course, about learning and intellect, but it must also be about outcomes – and we should adopt a “what works” approach, rather than sticking to rigid orthodoxes

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