The pandemic has disrupted life for everyone, but children and young people have seen perhaps the biggest changes to their day-to-day lives, with long periods spent away from school and their friends leading to significant rises in mental health difficulties and a substantial reduction in learning. Moreover, these challenges have not been felt equally: the evidence suggests that the pandemic has also led to a rise in inequalities between children from different socio-economic backgrounds, from the early years through to secondary school and beyond.
A budget and multi-year spending review delivered against a backdrop of the highest peace-time borrowing levels ever, and by a chancellor on a ‘moral’ mission to limit the size of the state, was unlikely to deliver the sort of investments in education that Sir Kevan Collins hoped to see when he took the role of ‘catch-up tsar’ earlier this year. But what did it deliver for education? And is it likely to help roll back the rises in educational inequalities that the pandemic has generated?
While it is positive to see some recognition of the need for a higher funding rate to be paid to early education providers to cover the delivery of the early education entitlements for 2, 3 and 4 year olds, the amount earmarked – £170m in 2024-25 – does not represent the substantial investment that many in the sector have been calling for: certainly nowhere near the £2.60 per hour increase that was estimated to be needed to fully fund the entitlement, enabling providers to deliver these hours without incurring a loss, or by charging for ‘extras’ (such as food or nappies) or increasing fees for other children in order to cover costs.
We await the details of exactly what this means for the official funding rate per hour. Still, for some idea of scale, spending on all early education entitlements – the universal 15 hour entitlement for 3 and 4 year olds, the additional 15 hours for 3 and 4 year olds via the extended entitlement, and the 15 hour entitlement for disadvantaged 2 year olds – was around £3.8bn in 2019-20. 170m represents less than a 5% increase on this figure. Putting it another way, in 2019-20, a total of around 1.75 million children were benefitting from each of the free early education entitlements. If the number of children taking up these places was to remain unchanged between 2019-20 and 2024-25, this suggests that early education providers would only receive around £100 per year more per child than they do now. In reality, the population of 2, 3 and 4 year olds is expected to fall over the next few years, which – when coupled with the reduction in take-up of the early education entitlements that we have seen over the course of the pandemic – may mean that the actual increase in funding rates is higher than 5%. But not much higher.
Likewise, while greater investment in family support services is also welcome, the much-trumpeted £500m increase represents less than half of the reduction in spending on Sure Start Children’s Centres that has taken place over the last decade, falling by over £1bn (around two thirds) in real-terms from a peak of around £1.8bn in 2009-10. A start, perhaps, but not the transformative ‘Start for Life’ that the rhetoric surrounding this announcement would suggest.
Yesterday’s announcements on schools were dominated by the news that school funding would return to real-terms levels last seen in 2010. Not much to write home about, you might think. But there was also only a small amount of additional money for education catch-up, including an increase in the ‘recovery premium’ – catch-up money targeted towards pupils from lower income families – for secondary school pupils. While it is positive to see funds being targeted towards the pupils most in need of support, our work has shown that the differences in remote learning experiences while schools were closed to most pupils varied substantially by socio-economic background, and whether the roughly £5bn allocated to catch-up will be enough to redress the balance is unclear. It certainly amounts to a lot less than is being spent per pupil in other countries.
Further and higher education
Despite rumours circulating in the media, the decision on the funding of higher education was kicked into the long grass yet again, with the words ‘higher education’ mentioned only three times in the Budget and Spending Review document, and more information promised “in the coming weeks”.
Meanwhile, the eye-catching nominal and real-terms increases announced for further education (FE) and skills look decidedly less generous once account is taken of the fact that we are about to experience a massive increase in the population of 16-19 year olds. The document itself acknowledges that while there will be a 28% real-terms increase in 16-19 funding in 2024-25 compared to 2019-20, this will only maintain – rather than increase – funding per student in real terms. Despite a much greater emphasis in policy discourse about the importance of further education and adult learning than we have seen in recent years, this settlement does not suggest a transformation of the fortunes of the FE sector, which caters to the majority of each academic cohort and in which young people from lower socio-economic backgrounds are over-represented.
Implications for inequalities
Perhaps contrary to expectations, yesterday’s spending review contained increases in spending for most government departments, paid for by the highest tax rises in nearly 30 years. But given the significant challenges posed by the pandemic for children and young people, the Department for Education’s budget will be only a little higher in 2024-25 than it was in 2009-10, while the Department of Health and Social Care budget will have increased by over 40%.
The thinking seems to be that children will catch-up over time anyway. But the evidence suggests that inequalities in educational attainment only increase as children get older: higher socio-economic status parents can provide more opportunities for learning – through better schools, tutoring or more academic and non-academic enrichment activities – than lower socio-economic status parents, and these investments cumulate over time, widening the gap between those from different backgrounds. The same will be true of parents’ ability to support their children to ‘catch-up’ on what they lost during the pandemic.
Without significant government investment to support children from more disadvantaged backgrounds, the wider inequalities that have opened up over the course of the pandemic are likely to foreshadow even greater inequalities in future. Yesterday’s spending review offered some support – but nowhere near enough.