This article was written by Ark CEO Lucy Heller, originally published on the Financial Times on Saturday 4 February 2023.
Many of us in the education world had mixed feelings during the teachers’ strike on “Walkout Wednesday”. No one wants children to be missing out on school. But equally, it is hard not to sympathise with staff who have seen their pay fall by almost 15 per cent since 2010, while their job gets ever tougher, particularly in recent years.
The pandemic was a huge shock to a system already struggling to absorb financial pressures and the growing needs of many of our most vulnerable children. Trends that were worsening anyway — rising poverty, pupil mental illness — were all exacerbated. Heads and teachers found themselves racing to move systems online, to support children in their homes and ensure pupils had access to laptops and food. It was an exhausting period where staff were suddenly thrust into the heart of crisis management.
The Covid aftershocks have given us no time to recover. Many schools are struggling to get attendance back to pre-lockdown levels. Schools across England are seeing an absence rate of just under eight per cent, significantly up on 4-5 per cent pre-pandemic. While the government has provided some welcome financial support, the overall response has been disappointing. As a National Audit Office report noted only days ago, “progress in addressing learning loss has been inconsistent”. Partly as a result, “the gap in attainment between disadvantaged pupils and other pupils has grown since 2019”.
This is particularly heartbreaking given that slow but steady progress had been made, under successive governments of every political stripe, towards reducing this gap. Of course, losing all of this untapped potential is not just a moral disaster but an economic one too. No strategy to boost Britain’s sluggish productivity and get the economy growing can ignore the skills gaps across multiple labour markets.
Even before the pandemic hit, progress on reducing the disadvantage gap had ground to a halt. There are many reasons, including greater financial pressure on schools and families, but there is also a sense that the agenda on reducing disadvantage, so prominent under New Labour and the coalition government, has lost momentum. The pupil premium which awards schools extra funding per head for a deprived intake, introduced by Michael Gove and Nick Clegg, is worth less in real terms — almost £200 per primary age child — than it was in 2015. Even rhetorically, it rarely features in ministerial speeches or articles.
"When disadvantaged pupils fall behind, the untapped potential is not just a moral disaster but an economic one too"
Reducing the attainment gap goes well beyond the school gates — it is inevitably going to be harder for a child to learn if they are hungry, cold or living in cramped, unhealthy conditions. But schools can make a substantial difference if given the means to do so. Recently, this has meant a relentless focus on reading here at Ark. Like most schools, we have seen far too many children slipping behind their reading age. But last year our students averaged more than 15 months’ progress over less than 10 months. Sustaining this sort of impact requires not just money, but also commitment and impetus at every level — including in government.
Most of all it requires teachers to be nurtured and supported. Sadly, there are no silver bullets in education. But there is no substitute, either, for high quality teaching in every classroom. Governments, and trusts like Ark, have put significant investment into professional development, which makes a positive difference. But there is no getting away from the inevitable consequences of reducing pay over a long period of time, especially when the demands of the job keep growing. If we want to recruit the best people and keep them, rewards need to track those of other graduate professions.
Alongside pay, schools need to think more about how to make the job as attractive as possible. Workload has increased, largely due to pupils’ additional pastoral needs, so how do we provide better and systematic support? Working with social services, child and adolescent mental health services, and families, is now part of the job. It should be recognised as such, even if we might hope other parts of the public sector get additional investment in the longer term to lighten our load.
The education system also needs to adapt to greater demand among younger graduates for flexible working, which is increasingly expected in other workplaces.
But there is something more intangible that we need alongside these concrete improvements to conditions. Teachers are some of the most trusted professionals in the country but they are not valued as much as they should be, including by government. Solving education problems will not be cheap, but showing a sincere understanding of teachers’ critical role in our society, economy and culture, doesn’t cost a penny. Indeed it’s something we can’t afford not to do.