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Counting the cost of a year’s lost learning

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Another schools row has blown up under Boris Johnson “like a laser-guided missile”, says Alex Wickham in Politico. After the Tories announced a “paltry” £1.5bn to help pandemic-hit pupils catch up on learning, the PM’s furious educational “catch-up” tsar, Kevan Collins, quit on Wednesday. But he didn’t go quietly: he blasted No 10’s “half-hearted approach” for failing “hundreds of thousands of pupils”. The sum on offer is a fraction of the £15bn Collins recommended to provide extra tuition and longer school days – and disadvantaged children in “red wall” seats will suffer most from the lack of public funding. What an open goal for Labour.

Please, just think of the children, says Collins in The Times. Up to 200,000 pupils could start secondary school in September with literacy far below the expected level – “the highest number ever.” The long-term hit to the economy from lost learning will be £100bn, and that’s a conservative estimate. Yet the PM is hardly reaching for his wallet. The government’s funding proposals amount to an extra £310 in total for each pupil a year, according to the Education Policy Institute, compared to £1,600 in the US in the US and £2,500 in the Netherlands. We’ve flunked the “single exam question” I was set when I took this job in Feb: what should be done to help children catch up? I’ve spent 40 years in education, and No 10’s homework is some of the sloppiest I’ve seen.

The government gets an F for effort, says The Guardian. Rishi Sunak apparently threw out a more ambitious plan last week, which would have cost more than £10bn. But Education Secretary Gavin Williamson must take the rap. From the exams debacle to the botched reopenings of schools to the “shameful foot-dragging” over free school meals in the holidays, this government has let down young people “again and again”. In her final speech as children’s commissioner in February, Anne Longfield challenged Boris Johnson: “Do you understand the additional harm that has been done to children during the pandemic? Are you serious about ‘building back better’ and ‘levelling up’?” The answer to both questions is clearly “no”.

“No group has been more affected by the pandemic lockdowns than schoolchildren”, says The Daily Telegraph. But spraying money around like confetti is a backwards way of thinking about this. Better systems of working often achieve more “for little or no extra cost”. The default demand of the public sector is huge financial commitment – it’s a good thing the Treasury balked at it. The bigger scandal is that exams were cancelled and pupils sent home in the first place. The risk to them from the virus was always “minuscule”, with teachers “no more likely to catch Covid than any other employee”. Arguably, they should never have been kept from the classroom at all.