The Kids Aren’t Alright

By Tiffany Burrows

Sir Kevan Collins, the Prime Minister’s education ‘catch up’ tsar, resigned last night, less than 24 hours after Education Secretary Gavin Williamson announced an injection of £1.4 billion to fund tutoring as part of his recovery plan. 

Sir Kevan was appointed in February this year to address the challenge of mitigating the impact of lost learning the UK’s children have missed due to COVID-19. In his resignation letter, Sir Kevan stated: “I do not believe it is credible that a successful recovery can be achieved with a programme of support of this size”, which can come as a surprise to few, given Sir Kevan’s own recommendation called for £15 billion.

As if the resignation and pointed criticism weren’t enough of a rebuke to the Education Secretary and the Prime Minister, the commentary around the Government’s announcement has not been favourable.

Writing in The Times, Sir Kevan compared the Government’s plan – which he states will bring the equivalent of £22 per primary school child – to that of the Netherlands (£2,500 per child) and the US (£1,600 per child), which serves as an illustrative example of his accusation that the Government’s plan is “half-hearted”. The National Association of Head Teachers said the plan “confirms the Government’s lack of ambition for education…it’s a damp squib” and blasts the Government’s proposals, stating that “education recovery cannot be done on the cheap.”

The Labour Party has gone on the attack, linking the resignation to a failure of the Government’s ‘levelling up’ policy with Shadow Schools Minister Peter Kyle MP tweeted: “every student has been failed and every promise to disadvantaged communities across the country has been broken”. The Opposition will be pleased that luck and timing were on their side, as the Party put out their own Children’s Recovery Plan which supports Sir Kevan Collins’ £15 billion proposal, before Sir Kevan’s resignation.

Labour’s strategy is a good one, challenging the Prime Minister and his administration on his own priorities (levelling up), on an issue that is seen as home ground for the Labour Party, and one that they will largely have public support on, is win-win for the Opposition.

The timing of the Government’s announcement – during half term, but more importantly, when the House of Commons is in recess – could lead some to accuse the government of looking to minimise scrutiny and (understandably) dissent from its own backbenches, as an Urgent Question, hauling the Education Secretary in front of MPs, on the matter would almost certainly have been granted on the matter should the House have been sitting.

However, the Education Secretary has managed to deflect attention from the Department for Education (DfE) to the Treasury and, aided by Sir Kevan’s resignation, Number 10, after reports about Williamson’s original proposal being rejected by the Treasury. Former Education Minister and Vaccines Minister Nadhim Zahawi spoke to ITV’s Robert Peston to defend the Treasury (and Rishi Sunak) and pushed back on the accusations being hurled at government, suggesting that teaching unions were responsible for Sir Kevan’s suggestions not being taken accepted (in relation to extending the school day).

Under this level of pressure from all sides, and with a government not immune to u-turns, there could be one on the cards but I wouldn’t be sure of one happening anytime soon. For one, Number 10 is unlikely to want to pick a fight with the Treasury, particularly given reports that the Prime Minister was in support of its decision. The Government will also not want to be seen to hand Labour such an open goal at a time when the Government’s own shortcomings have been largely shrouded by an Opposition struggling to get cut-through. The politically shrewd option would be to move Gavin Williamson from the DfE over the summer (as expected), and have another announcement later in the year guaranteeing more funds (perhaps during the Spending Review) when this announcement has been allowed to settle.

Given the battles Number 10 has been having on a number of fronts, this seems like one that could – and should – have been avoided.