Battleground Yorkshire: Conservatives' strong record on education is under threat

Successive Conservative governments' record on education is perhaps one of the only remaining shining lights of the party's tenure after what looks like a difficult end to its decade and a half in power.

English schools have bucked the trend from other sectors with reading and maths surging back to compete with international counterparts.

That progress is now stalling, and as with most policy failures in the UK, the burden is falling on the poorest.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

"Something we see is a widening of the attainment gap between pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds and pupils from low income households and the rest," says Jon Andrews, inset, from the Education Policy Institute (EPI).

A school teacher looking stressed next to piles of classroom books.A school teacher looking stressed next to piles of classroom books.
A school teacher looking stressed next to piles of classroom books.

"Progress in closing that gap was stalling prior to the pandemic and during the pandemic we've seen a widening of that gap.

"Actually what we've now seen is around a decade's progress in closing that gap which has been wiped out."

Students that have historically been eligible for free school meals are now typically around two years behind their peers when they come to sit their GCSEs.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

Education has often been viewed as a "silver bullet" to tackle inequality, with good schools providing a route out of disadvantage that can lead to a university education and a well-paid job.

Recent studies by think tanks such as the IFS found that children from poorer backgrounds do worse through every stage of the education system.

The pandemic, which was perhaps hardest on children than any other age group due to the disruption at a vital time in their development, has not helped matters.

Mr Andrews says that although the "learning loss" for reading has somewhat caught up with where students should be now, a lack of progress in maths has persisted, with students now arriving at secondary school around two months behind.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

"Those losses are happening across all pupils, but it's particularly pupils from low income backgrounds where we're seeing the biggest losses and failure to recover since the pandemic," he says.

Improvements often come hand in hand with increased funding, with better facilities, better teachers and better equipment often able to make an impact on pupil outcomes.

"Funding is always going to be a key thing for schools, and we saw between 2010 and 2020 some fall in real terms per pupil funding," says Mr Andrews.

"A lot of that has started to come back after some of the increases over the last few years.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

"But the increases we've seen to schools have tended to be focused on the more affluent schools, and this was as a result of what was called the levelling up policy.

"Additional funding tended to go to schools that historically had lower levels of funding, and they tended to have lower levels of funding because they served more advantaged communities, schools with fewer pupils with special educational needs and so on.

"So what we'd really like to see is a better, better targeting of funding towards those pupils who could probably benefit the most.

"Research shows that additional funding does matter for pupil outcomes and it matters in particular for pupils from low income backgrounds." Levelling up, though it has come to be a by-word for "making things better" in the UK in recent years, should really have education at its heart given the evidence there is to improve lives through increased funding, he feels.

"The principles of levelling up are kind of right. We do have areas of the country where student outcomes are far lower than elsewhere."

Related topics:

Comment Guidelines

National World encourages reader discussion on our stories. User feedback, insights and back-and-forth exchanges add a rich layer of context to reporting. Please review our Community Guidelines before commenting.