I have campaigned hard, since Easter 2020, for money to be spent on a catch-up fund because of damage from school closures and the lasting effect on children.
That is why, while not a lockdown sceptic, I was a schooldown sceptic. My position is therefore clear.
The Secretary of State (Gavin Williamson) and the Schools Minister (Nick Gibb) deserve credit for the £3bn that has been secured for the catch-up premium and recovery, as does the Minister for Children and Families (Vicky Ford) for the extra £220m for the holiday activities and food programme, for catch-up, sporting and wellbeing activities and free school meals.
Many millions of pounds extra have been given to local councils and charities to ensure that children are fed properly. There is also an extra £79m for mental health.
At any other time, funding of more than £3bn to the schools system would be welcome, especially when £400bn has been spent on the Covid pandemic.
With all that in mind, I want to focus on two matters. The first is the catch-up fund and ensuring that it reaches the most disadvantaged pupils.
The second is my hope that the Government will implement an important part of Sir Kevan Collins’s recommendations – a longer school day.
My worry about the catch-up fund is that it appears that not enough is reaching disadvantaged pupils. Recent figures suggest that 44 per cent of people receiving the Pupil Premium were missed.
There is also significant regional disparity: for example, there is huge take-up in the South West, but just 58 per cent take-up in the North East.
If the catch-up programme is to be the success that I believe it could be, Ministers must ensure that funds are directed towards the most disadvantaged pupils who have learnt the least during the pandemic.
Perhaps one way of doing that is to allow schools more autonomy to choose their tuition routes to permit teachers to choose their own catch-up tutors, not leave it solely to the groups already chosen by the Department for Education, however good they may be.
I accept that there must be absolute, definitive criteria for quality and outcomes. The teachers and support staff are best placed to identify those most in need of additional support and they can offer the quality catch-up that those pupils require.
I want to discuss the key part of Sir Kevan Collins’s plan. It is the idea of a longer school day. I was encouraged by the Secretary of State’s response to my question during the statement on Monday.
He said that “there is a body of evidence that can be collected that shows that extra time in the classroom can deliver real benefits for pupils. It is about getting the combination right”.
I am talking not about an extended school day in terms of pupils learning algebra until 7 o’clock in the evening, but a combination of academic catch-up and extracurricular activities to improve mental health and wellbeing.
We know that 39 per cent of academies set up before 2010 have seen success for pupils from the introduction of a longer school day, and I have seen that in my constituency.
I urge the Government in the meantime to set up some school pilot schemes in disadvantaged areas of the country, inviting civil society groups to help to run the extracurricular activity, and gather the evidence that will feed into the proposals for the Comprehensive Spending Review.
In conclusion, the Government have provided a hefty starter, with billions of pounds allocated to catch-up funding, mental health wellbeing and free school meals.
This commitment to education, alongside the lifetime skills guarantee and the Chancellor’s kickstart funding for apprenticeships, shows real direction of travel.
I mentioned that this was a hefty starter – the main course will be a serious long-term plan for education, along with components such as a longer school day with a secure funding settlement.
I hope that the Government reach this point by the time of the Comprehensive Spending Review later this year.
Robert Halfon is a Tory MP and chair of Parliament’s Education Committee. He spoke in a Commons debate on the schools catch-up plan – this is an edited version.
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