Can Boris Johnson help struggling students?

Helping children catch up on the best part of a year out of the classroom is one of the biggest tasks facing the government. On Wednesday, Gavin Williamson announced an extra £400 million in funding which schools can use to run summer programmes and other catch-up projects. That’s on top of £300 million allocated last month and £1 billion announced last year. Ministers hope that their Recovery Premium will help schools support particularly disadvantaged pupils, who have fallen further behind than their peers as a result of having to do remote learning for so long. But they are also under pressure to show that they are thinking about the long-term,

Ross Clark

Face masks in schools: a note on the evidence

Secondary-school children returning to school from 8 March will be required to wear masks in classrooms, at least for several weeks. That is in contrast to the initial return of children to school last summer. It wasn’t until November that they were required to wear masks at school, and then only in corridors and other communal areas. But should we be forcing children to wear masks? A German study – in a preprint which has yet to be peer-reviewed – has reported negative symptoms of children who wear masks in that country.  As the researchers point out, there is a lack of evidence on the use of masks in school

Britain’s class of Covid is in a race against time

Winning the war is one thing, winning the peace is quite another. Time and again through history, national governments have thrown everything into a wartime effort, only to forget that there will be a country – or countries – to rebuild once victory has been secured.  This is why the Prime Minister is so keen to talk about Building Back Better and the Green Skills Revolution that he promises will follow just as soon as the vaccine has worked its magic. We are, we are told, going to create a better Britain once we’ve seen the back of Coronavirus. And of course much of Johnson’s blue sky ambition is admirable,

What Britain could learn from New Zealand about home-schooling

If ever there was a moment to address the issue of home-schooling, it is now. The pandemic has disrupted teaching, school life and examinations in catastrophic ways. Many children will now never get the education they would have had. But every crisis is an opportunity — and this crisis offers the chance to reform education in radical ways for the better. Britain could learn a lot from New Zealand. Since 1922, the Kiwis have run a state-funded national correspondence school, known now in Maori as Te Aho o Te Kura Pounamu (Te Kura for short). In Western Australia, a similar school has existed since 1918 and is known as the

Letters: How to repair the Church of England

Save on bishops Sir: The Church of England is once again missing the point if its financial crisis will result in the closure of parish churches and redundancy of clergy (‘Holy relic’, 6 February). Radical action is required, but the focus should be elsewhere. A starting point would be to amalgamate the vast majority of dioceses. Why is East Anglia served by the C of E dioceses of Ely, Norwich, St Edmundsbury and part of Peterborough when the Roman Catholics manage more than adequately with a diocese for East Anglia? Time to unite and benefit from economies of scale. But it should go much further: halve the number of bishops, diocesan and

Covid could force a major schools shake-up

At some point in the next few months, life will return to something approaching normality. When that happens, the UK will have to confront all the problems that Covid has left behind: bruised public finances, long NHS waiting list and the rest. But the problem that Boris Johnson is most worried about, as I write in the Times today, is the effect on children of having been out of school for so long. This pandemic has probably wiped out a decade of progress in narrowing the attainment gap. There would undoubtedly be resistance from the education sector The government is hoping that small group tutoring can help make up much of the

Gavin Mortimer

The French lesson that shames Britain

Emmanuel Macron has become the pantomime villain for much of the British press after his hissy fit last week in which he questioned the efficacy of the AstraZeneca jab. It was the latest in a series of snipes at the British that has made the French president the scourge of Fleet Street. ‘Bargain-basement Bonaparte,’ was how the Daily Mail described Macron, while the Sun plumped for ‘pint-sized egomaniac’. He’s none too popular among his own people, either, the figurehead of the French failure to be the only member of the UN Security Council incapable of producing their own vaccine. No wonder a recent opinion poll suggested Marine Le Pen is a stronger

The cost of school closures

How can ministers stop one of the worst legacies of the pandemic being a generation of children left behind after a year out of the classroom? This week, when Boris Johnson confirmed 8 March as the earliest schools will return, he also announced money to help pupils catch up and a long-term plan for education. There’s a glimpse of the scale of the task facing the government as it develops a long-term plan in this report from the Education Endowment Foundation, which found not only a significant fall in attainment for primary age pupils as a result of the disruption to the school year, but also a ‘large and concerning

The true cost of school closures – an interview with the Children’s Commissioner

Teaching unions have spent much of the past year campaigning with the social media hashtag #CloseTheSchools. It’s a reminder of the imbalance in debate over education. Unions represent the adults, MPs represent their constituents, but who in Westminster speaks for children? In 2005 the Blair government sought to answer this question by creating a Children’s Commissioner, who would promote and protect the rights of children in decisions affecting their lives. Anne Longfield, the third to hold the job, is in the final few weeks of her six-year stint. She is spending those weeks campaigning for schools to re-open as soon as possible after the February half-term. She believes she has

Boris confirms schools will not reopen before March

England’s national lockdown is set to run on until at least March. Speaking in the Commons chamber this afternoon, Boris Johnson confirmed that the return of pupils to the classroom would be the first thing to be eased – and this would not happen in February as he had previously hoped. Addressing the House, Johnson said ‘it will not be possible’ to reopen schools in England after the half-term break next month. However, he remained hopeful that so long as the UK’s vaccination programme remained on track, the return of pupils to the classroom would be able to begin from Monday 8 March. Given that No. 10 have no plans to

Captain Hindsight strikes again

A third stint in self-isolation and some extra time alone doesn’t seem to have given Keir Starmer time to reflect on his opposition strategy. Last night Labour called on the government to prioritise the reopening of schools when the time comes to lift lockdown restrictions.  Clearly a good idea — so good in fact that it’s already government policy. Boris Johnson has spent the best part of a year making clear that he will prioritise face-to-face education above almost all other social activity, telling the Commons three weeks ago that schools would be the first thing to reopen.  Starmer can hardly complain when the PM mockingly calls him ‘Captain Hindsight’ —

Lockdown learning is no match for the joys of the classroom

Schools in January are usually full of life, but not this year. At the start of my day, I walk alone down silent corridors to an empty classroom. There are no children lined up outside; the bustle of school life is gone and the only voice I hear is my own. Welcome to lock down learning where my pupils are miles away at the far end of fibre optic cables. Teachers like me are doing our best to make it work but, although we are not teaching blind, our vision is so restricted that we might as well be looking at our classes down long cardboard tubes. We never did have

What role do schools play in the spread of Covid-19?

Schools were the last institutions to close and can be expected to be the first to reopen. But just how big a part do schools play in the spread of Covid-19? The European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control has published a review of the evidence from 17 countries and concluded that the reopening of schools cannot be blamed for a resurgence in the virus. Most countries closed their schools during the first wave of the epidemic in spring 2020. From 15 April, Denmark reopened schools – with social distancing – for 2 to 12 year olds. There was no increase in cases following this reopening, according to the ECDC. Similarly,

It’s time to vaccinate teachers – and start planning a great school reopening

At the start of the Covid-19 crisis, Chris Whitty often made the point that a pandemic kills in two ways: directly and indirectly. Locking down society also costs lives — and stymies life chances. Ever since the government moved to embrace lockdown, neither ministers nor the chief medical officer have talked much about the collateral damage it inflicts. This is odd, because it is perfectly defensible to say that lockdown is the least damaging course of action while still acknowledging the harm it causes, particularly for the young. Not since Victorian times have so many children spent so little time in school. As ever, it is the poorest who will

Why is Labour calling on Gavin Williamson to resign?

Why has Labour chosen today to call for Gavin Williamson to resign as Education Secretary? This morning, shadow education secretary Kate Green released a statement saying ‘it is time for Gavin Williamson to go’, arguing that his ‘record throughout this pandemic has been shambolic’ and ‘he has bounced from one crisis to another without learning from his mistakes or listening to the parents, pupils and hard-working education staff who have been left to deal with the fallout’. It is unlikely that he will stay in the job when Boris Johnson carries out his next reshuffle It’s true that Williamson has had probably the worst pandemic out of any minister and

Gavin Williamson licks his wounds in the Commons

Of all the government ministries grappling with the impact of the pandemic, the Department for Education has probably had the most torrid – and least impressive – time. There is currently no sign that things are improving, either: in the past week, ministers have had to deal with a highly politically-toxic row over the quality of free school meals for children during lockdown. That row formed the backdrop to today’s education questions in the Commons, where Gavin Williamson and his colleagues were very visibly licking their wounds. Williamson was accused – as he is every time he appears in the Chamber – of being ‘incompetent’, with Labour’s Kate Green complaining that

Why I was sacked from Eton

One of the things I’ll miss about teaching at Eton is the ever-present threat of an ironic riposte from one of the boys. ‘Cheer up,’ I told one who looked un-enthused by Milton in my first week at the school, nine years ago. ‘Two hundred years ago, you’d have been down a mine!’ ‘Sir,’ he replied deadpan, ‘we’d have owned the mines.’ The class erupted in self–deprecating laughter. I’d arrived. It was the boys themselves who suggested and named the YouTube channel Knowland Knows, which has since got me summarily dismissed. The axe fell swiftly after I asked why a video entitled ‘The Patriarchy Paradox’ (originally intended as half of

Can Gavin Williamson limit the impact of school closures?

It is much harder being an embattled minister in the socially distanced Commons than in normal times. There is no group of supportive MPs to arrange behind you, no ability to organise sympathetic noises from the backbenches as you give your statement explaining why you’ve taken a last-minute decision to close all schools when you said you wouldn’t and had been threatening councils who were trying to do so just before Christmas with legal action, and why you’ve spent the past few weeks insisting that exams would go ahead in the summer, only to cancel them this week too. On this charge sheet, Gavin Williamson would have struggled in any


Watch: Gavin Williamson’s schools opening gaffe

Oh dear. Education Secretary Gavin Williamson has not exactly been at the top of his game in recent weeks. Across the country teachers, children and parents have been thrown into turmoil by the government’s haphazard education plans, which have seen schools open up for a single day, and national exams cancelled, despite the Education Secretary’s insistence they would ‘absolutely’ go ahead. Still, Mr S hoped that Williamson would at least be clear in his mind about getting schools back open once again. Unfortunately, the minister seemed to rather struggle with that message when in Parliament today. In a statement, Williamson instead insisted that: ‘I can absolutely assure the honourable lady,

Closing schools was inevitable. But cancelling exams is a mistake

On Sunday morning, Boris Johnson told us that schools were safe but, tellingly, did not rule out further closures. By Monday evening he had shut every school in England to most pupils. By then, of course, many primary schools had opened for just one day. Children mingled – as they do – and went home not to return. But after those bubbles were mixed, fewer grandparents may be willing to look after them. When will they return? Johnson said not until half term, at least. But when policy can reverse so quickly in less than 36 hours, just about the only certainty is that it is far easier to close schools than