Rishi Sunak’s five unanswered questions on schools catch-up plan and transparency – Tom Richmond

WHO is in charge of education polic now – Gavin Williamson, Boris Johnson or Rishi Sunak?

Chancellor Rishi Sunak told The Yorkshire Post last summer that he was motivated to enter politics by a desire to improve education.
Chancellor Rishi Sunak told The Yorkshire Post last summer that he was motivated to enter politics by a desire to improve education.

It’s an increasing puzzling conundrum as the furore grows over the Government’s schools catch-up plan in the wake of former headteacher Sir Kevan Collins resigning as Education Recovery Commissioner.

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He quit when his £15bn blueprint, including an extension to the school day for broader activities, was rejected in favour of a £1.5bn fund for extra tutoring, bringing the total catch-up fund to £3bn.

Gavin Williamson remains Education Secretary.

What schools, students and taxpayers should have a right to know is how this decision – one which is fundamental to the country’s future fortunes – was reached and justified when the amount is 10 times less than the sum proposed by the expert brought in by the Government.

Williamson, as Education Secretary, should have been in the driving seat. He was not, hence why Sir Kevan was recruited earlier this year to bring some much-needed expertise to the minister’s inner circle.

Williamson, I understand, was not even present at key meetings – that is a measure of the Department for education’s reputational decline on his calamitous watch since July 2019.

Boris Johnson was questioned on the schools catch-up plan at Prime Minister's Questions.

Johnson, as Prime Minister, gave every indication and impression that he was in favour of the catch-up plan and how it could be a centrepiece of his still undefined levelling up agenda.

But both men, it appears, were trumped by the Chancellor who, despite being present at meetings with Johnson and Collins, decided to veto the full plan.

This has not been denied to this newspaper by the Treasury press office or Sunak’s special advisor – the latter suggesting that the DfE tried to bounce the Chancellor into a decision and there was no evidence to suggest that extending the school day would justify the expense or battle with teaching unions.

They’re fair points. Yet the public and national interest is such that the country should be hearing them from Sunak rather than information being teased out of an obstructive Treasury and a Chancellor who told me, just last year, that improving education and life chances for pupils was his primary motivation for entering politics.

Days before Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer accused the Chancellor of presiding over a ‘‘false economy’’, I was trying to establish:

1. Why Sunak felt the Collins plans were unsuitable and the number of meetings that he attended with the Education Recovery Commissioner?

2. The cost benefit analysis undertaken by the Treasury and why it so differed from the submission by Collins who believes the long-term cost to the economy could be as much as £100bn.

3. If the Chancellor believes schools are adequately funded?

4. If not, what more needs to be done for catch-up funding to meet Treasury critiera?

5. If the buck for levelling up policy now stops with the Treasury – or the Prime Minister?

I still am. All reasonable questions, the only formal response came via press officers working for Steve Barclay, the Treasury chief secretary, rather than the Chancellor.

They said there is now “£3bn of additional funding to help pupils catch up” – they, like Johnson in the Commons, are including previously announced money in public answers. The HM Treasury spokesperson then added: “We have focussed this spending on what we know will be most effective to help our children’s learning.

“We are confident that this unprecedented support will make a transformational difference to their lives.”

That’s fine. Now can we have an explanation from the Chancellor – or has he decided that he only intends to speak when it suits him his own agenda and interests?

After all, this isn’t supposed to be a political power struggle – it is about improving the life chances of those pupils already disadvantaged before the Covid pandemic and even more so now.

No one disputes the serious situation of the public finances – or the heavy burden of Sunak’s public responsibilities. But, on an issue as important as schools funding, he would, I believe, go up in the public’s estimation if he was more candid with the country rather than hiding behind officials and semantics.

As for Williamson, much of this controversy would, in all likelihood, have been avoided if a ‘‘fit for purpose’’ Education Secretary had been appointed in the first place.

REMEMBER Boris Johnson’s headline promise at the last election that the Tories would build 40 new hospitals straight away?

All is not well judging by this statement to Parliament this week: “Our ambitious programme to build 40 new hospitals by 2030 has confirmed funding of £3.7bn at this point.” It went on: “We continue to work with Her Majesty’s Treasury on future funding for the whole programme.”

Ominous. These words came from Edward Argar. Who is he, you might ask? Only the Minister for Health.

TORY peer Dido Harding of ‘‘test and trace’’ infamy says she’s considering applying to become chief executive of NHS England. I’m unconvinced that her record at TalkTalk – where a massive data breach took place on her watch – qualifies her. And why should the NHS be headed by a peer who shuns scrutiny? She’s not spoken in the Lords since March 2020.

IAN Blackford – the SNP leader at Westminster – led his party’s Commons response over foreign aid cuts. I presume it was a dress rehearsal for Scottish independence.