White papering over the cracks – soundbites but not support for English schools

Classroom” by -Marlith- is marked with CC BY 2.0.

The long awaited schools white paper, the first in six years, is a flimsy thing. Instead of serious investment it offers soundbites. Instead of cash to address inequalities it offers cliche. Like so much of the so-called ‘levelling up’ agenda it promotes the illusion of action rather than a practical programme of change.

So empty are some of the proposals in the document that they have attracted outright ridicule. According to the prime minister for example “if your child falls behind at school in [literacy or numeracy] their school will help them get back on track.”  Does he seriously think no-one has thought of that before?

Twitter has been full of suggestions for similar initiatives in other sectors. If people fall ill doctors might be asked to help cure them. The police might be asked to investigate crime. Pubs might serve beer.

It’s more than laughable, however. It’s deeply insulting to teachers for whom supporting pupil progress is an intrinsic part of the job. It’s also intended to distract from the real problem of underfunding.

Less funny, but equally vacuous, is the requirement that schools should be required to open for 32.5 hours per week.  Most already do and most of those that don’t are within 15 minutes of that total. There are no additional resources to pay for extra teaching, however, and therefore most schools are likely to meet the extra requirement by extending breaks. It sounds tough but achieves nothing.

Set against these trivial announcements is the shocking fact that since 2010 Conservative chancellors have presided over the most serious cuts to schools spending in 40 years. According to Sam Freedman, former special adviser to Michael Gove, even with recent increases

“in 2025, schools will still have less money, in real terms, than they did when the coalition came to power.”

The figures for sixth form funding are even more stark. The independent Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) notes that spending per student in colleges in 2024-25 will be 

“lower than 2005 levels, almost 20 years earlier. For school sixth forms, spending per student in 2024–25 will be 15 per cent lower in real terms than it was over 20 years earlier in 2002–03.” 

The IFS makes clear that “These historically large decreases in spending per student create immense resource challenges for colleges and sixth forms in seeking to maintain the quality of education”.

It is no wonder that, as we have documented previously, Eton College feels it needs an extra £1million per year to provide a decent standard of education in a small state funded sixth form of 250 pupils.

The contrast between funding in private schools, where a majority of the cabinet were educated, and the state sector, for which they are responsible, is underlined by IFS data. The gap between average fees charged by the private sector and average funding for state schools has more than doubled since 2010 with private schools now getting twice as much per pupil as their state counterparts. The figures understate the disparity, since they take no account of other sources of income, such as the £100,000 recently donated to his old school, by the chancellor. It’s hard to find a clearer illustration of the disconnect between the rhetoric of ‘levelling up’ and the reality of bolstering privilege.

No wonder Conservative MPs are anxious to focus on the effects of the pandemic rather than their own record. It is right that there should be a focus on helping pupils catch up after losing time at school because of Covid-19. It is true that government has provided extra funds, though less than a tenth of the level that their own adviser recommended. It is also true, sadly, that the implementation of catch up funding has been hopeless because of a doctrinaire obsession with outsourcing to the private sector. 

We need to help pupils recover from the impact of covid.

The bigger task is the need to help schools and colleges recover from a decade of austerity.