Isabel Hardman

Is Gavin Williamson doing enough for deprived children?

Is Gavin Williamson doing enough for deprived children?
Gavin Williamson (photo: Getty)
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There are just days until all pupils return to English schools, and Conservative MPs are becoming increasingly concerned about what state many of these students will be in when they arrive back in the classroom after the best part of a year trying to learn from home.

At today's Education Questions in the House of Commons, a number of backbenchers pressed Education Secretary Gavin Williamson on the work the government is doing to get the most disadvantaged children back up to speed. Both Jack Brereton and Julian Sturdy had tabled questions asking 'what support his department is providing to help children catch up on lost learning during the Covid-19 outbreak'. Williamson's response was to point to the £1.7 billion in funding announced over the past few months for 'helping education settings boost pupils' learning, including additional funding for tutoring, early language support and summer schools', as well as the appointment of Sir Kevan Collins as the education recovery commissioner. Both backbenchers, though, responded by pointing out that the most deprived children had fallen further behind than their peers. Sturdy asked the minister to 'clarify how he proposes to target support to reach students who have fallen behind most over the past year – those who have been really affected by this lockdown', while Brereton pointed out that 'children in areas of high deprivation... have had less teaching time during the pandemic'. They were followed by Education Select Committee chair Robert Halfon, who worried that a previous programme of summer schools in 2013 saw only 50 per cent of the disadvantaged pupils who were invited actually attend.

Later in the session, more Conservative MPs pushed Williamson on what the government might do to repair the damage done by a year of remote learning – and he gave a number of significant answers. There was a question from Flick Drummond about the possibility of extending the school day: Williamson didn't rule it out, saying 'we have asked Sir Kevan Collins to look at a whole range of different options'. He also confirmed that the government was open to changing the school holidays so that the current penalty suffered by disadvantaged children doesn't exacerbate the Covid gap still further. He told Tory Imran Ahmad Khan 'we have asked Sir Kevan Collins to look across a full and broad range of ways of giving children a boost, not just to catch up on any learning that they have lost but more fundamentally, to make major changes to how we drive educational attainment over a generation and more'.

It is clear that Collins' work is going to be fundamental to the government's policy on catching up after Covid. But it is also important that the Secretary of State who reads the recommendations of this review is someone who is prepared to have the mother of all fights with a number of vested interests in education, and with political colleagues who will doubtless lose interest in this problem once the news cycle starts to move on in a year or so. It is likely that some of these children will need to spend the rest of their school careers catching up after the past few months of disruption to their education, social development and mental health. Political attention spans are rarely that long.

Written byIsabel Hardman

Isabel Hardman is assistant editor of The Spectator and author of Why We Get the Wrong Politicians. She also presents Radio 4’s Week in Westminster.

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