This blog post first appeared on the University of Bristol Economics blog.
Simon Burgess, June 2021
Yesterday saw the resignation of Sir Kevan Collins, leading the Government’s Education Recovery Programme. The pandemic has hit young people very hard, causing significant learning losses and reduced mental health; the Recovery Programme is intended to rectify these harms and to repair the damage to pupils’ futures. His resignation letter labelled as inadequate the Government’s proposal: “I do not believe that it is credible that a successful recovery can be achieved with a programme of support of this size.”
The rejection of this programme, and the offer of a funding package barely a tenth of what is needed, is hard to understand. It is certainly not efficient: the cost of not rectifying the lost learning is vastly greater than the £15billion cost (discussed below). And it is manifestly unfair, for example when compared to the enormous expense incurred to look after older people like me. The vaccination programme is a colossal and brilliant public undertaking; we need something similar to protect the futures of young people. We have also seen educational inequality widen dramatically across social groups: children from poorer families have fallen yet further behind. If we do not have a properly funded educational recovery programme, any talk of “levelling up” is just noise.
Context – Education recovery after learning loss
An education recovery plan is urgently needed because of all the learning lost during school closures. For the first few months of the pandemic and the first round of school closures, we were restricted to just estimating the learning loss. Once pupils started back at school in September, data began to be collected from online assessment providers to actually measure the learning loss. The Education Endowment Foundation is very usefully collating these findings as they come in. The consensus is that the average loss of learning is around 2-3 months, with the most recent results the most worrying. Within that average, the loss is much greater for students from disadvantaged backgrounds, and the loss is greater for younger pupils. To give only the most recent example, the latest data shows that schools with high fractions of disadvantaged kids saw falls in test scores twice as severe as those in low-poverty schools, and that Year 1 and Year 2 pupils experienced much larger falls in attainment. Government proposals for “Recovery” spending for precisely these pupils would be next to nothing, as Sir Kevan Collins notes in his Times article today: “The average primary school will directly receive just £6,000 per year, equivalent to £22 per child”.
The Government’s proposals amount to roughly £1 billion for more small-group tutoring and around £500m for teacher development and training. I am strongly in favour of small-group tutoring, but the issue is the scale: this is nowhere near enough. It is widely reported that Sir Kevan Collins’ estimate of what was required was £15 billion, based on a full analysis of the lost learning and the mental health and wellbeing deficits that both need urgent attention. For comparison, EPI helpfully provide these numbers on education recovery spending: the figure for England is equivalent to around £310 per pupil over three years, compared to £1,600 per pupil in the US, and £2,500 per pupil in the Netherlands.
Why might the programme have been rejected? Here are some arguments:
“It’s a lot of money”
It really isn’t. An investment of £15bn is dwarfed by the cost of not investing. Time in school increases a child’s cognitive ability, and prolonged periods of missed school have consequences for skill growth. We now know that a country’s level of skills has a strong (causal) effect on its economic growth rate. This is a very, very large scale problem: all of the 13 cohorts of pupils in school have lost skills because of school closures. So from the mid-2030s, all workers in their 20s will have significantly lower skills than they would otherwise have. And for the 40 years following that, between a third and a quarter of the entire workforce will have lower skills. Lost learning, lower skills, lower economic growth, lower tax revenues. Hanushek and Woessman, two highly distinguished economists, compute this value for a range of OECD countries. For the UK, assuming that the average amount of lost learning is about half a year, their results project the present discounted value of all the lost economic growth at roughly £2,150 billion (£2.15 trillion). Almost any policy will be worthwhile to mitigate such a loss.
“Kids are resilient and the lost learning will sort itself out”
This is simply wishful thinking. We should not be betting the futures of 7 million children on this basis. Economists estimate the way that skills are formed and one key attribute of this process can be summarised as “skills beget skills”. One of the first statements of this was Heckman and co-authors, and more recent researchers have confirmed this, and also using genetic data. This implies that if the level of skills has fallen to a lower level, then the future growth rate of skills will also be lower, assuming nothing else is done. It is also widely shown that early investments are particularly productive. Given these, we would expect pupils suffering significant learning losses to actually fall further behind rather than catch up. Sir Kevan Collins makes exactly this point in his resignation letter: “learning losses that are not addressed quickly are likely to compound”.
Perhaps catch-up can be achieved by pupils and parents working a bit harder at home? There is now abundant evidence from many countries including the UK that learning at home is only effective for some, typically more advantaged, families. For other families, it is not for want of trying or caring, but their lack of time, resources, skills and space makes it very difficult. The time for home learning to make up the lost learning was March 2020 through March 2021; if it was only patchily effective then, it will be less effective from now on.
“There’s no evidence to support these interventions”
This is simply not true, as I set out when recommending small-group tutoring last summer. There is abundant evidence that small-group tutoring is very effective in raising attainment. There is also strong evidence that lengthening the school day is also effective.
This blog is less scientifically cold and aloof than most that I write. I struggle to make sense of the government’s proposals to provide such a half-hearted, watered-down recovery programme, to value so lightly the permanent scar on pupil’s futures. The skills and learning of young people will not magically recover by itself; the multiple blows to mental health and wellbeing will not heal if ignored. The Government’s proposal appears to have largely abandoned them. To leave the final words to Sir Kevan Collins: “I am concerned that the package announced today betrays an undervaluation of the importance of education, for individuals and as a driver of a more prosperous and healthy society.”