Education recovery commissioner’s exit latest sign Johnson deaf to public mood

London Letter: Rejection of Collins’s funds plea over lost learning sparked resignation

Since the last general election in December 2019, 12 ministers have resigned or been sacked by Boris Johnson, including a chancellor of the exchequer, an internal trade secretary and a Scottish secretary. The British prime minister has lost his chief adviser Dominic Cummings, two directors of communications, a press secretary, the head of the government's legal department, an adviser on civil society and communities, three members of his LGBT advisory panel and, unsurprisingly, his ethics adviser.

Amid this stampede through the shiny black front door of 10 Downing Street, the resignation of education recovery commissioner Kevan Collins on Wednesday might have seemed like just another day at the office for the prime minister. But the issue on which Collins resigned and the faultline it exposes within the Conservative Party's electoral coalition suggests that Collins's departure could be more consequential than most of the others.

One of the most respected figures in British education, Collins was tasked with developing a long-term plan to help school pupils make up for the learning they lost during the coronavirus pandemic. He is understood to have called for a £15 billion (€17.4 billion) package of measures that would extend the school day by half an hour and fund 100 hours of extra teaching a year for pupils in the two final years of secondary school.

More disadvantaged children would be made eligible for early-years education and there would be an increase in pupil funding for early years and disadvantaged older pupils. Much of the funding in his proposed package would go directly to schools, which would determine how best to target it.


Tenth of funds

Collins resigned after Johnson decided to allocate less than one-tenth of the funds he requested, with a slimmed-down, £1.4 billion plan to offer an extra year of teaching for pupils who fail their A-levels, more funding for teacher training and a promise to extend tutoring to five million pupils by 2024.

“When we met last week, I told you that I do not believe it will be possible to deliver a successful recovery without significantly greater support than the government has to date indicated it intends to provide,” Collins said in his resignation letter.

Downing Street said more money could be on the way later this year when chancellor of the exchequer Rishi Sunak presents his spending review. But writing in the Times on Thursday, Collins warned that Johnson's meanness of ambition risked failing hundreds of thousands of pupils and damaging Britain's economic prospects.

“One conservative estimate puts the long-term economic cost of lost learning in England due to the pandemic at £100 billion, with the average pupil having missed 115 days in school. In parts of the country where schools were closed for longer, such as the north, the impact of low skills on productivity is likely to be particularly severe. The pandemic has affected all pupils but hit disadvantaged children hardest. A decade’s progress to narrow the attainment gap between disadvantaged children and their peers is estimated to have been reversed,” he wrote.

Ideas discarded

An analysis by the Education Policy Institute (EPI) calculated that a total of £3.1 billion in catch-up funding announced since the start of the pandemic amounts to just £310 per pupil, compared to £1,600 in the United States and £2,500 in the Netherlands. Collins's allies blame Sunak and treasury officials for blocking his ambitious recovery plan, and Labour seized on the government's decision and the adviser's resignation.

"He was brought in by Boris Johnson because of his experience and expertise in education, but the government have thrown out his ideas as soon as it came to stumping up the money needed to deliver them," shadow education secretary Kate Green said.

The episode highlights the tension between Sunak’s determination to restore fiscal order after the pandemic and Johnson’s promise to “level up” the British economy in a way that will benefit the new Conservative voters in the north of England and the midlands.

Johnson faces a backbench rebellion over another consequence of Sunak’s orthodoxy, a cut in Britain’s overseas aid budget.

Some Tories fear that the government is misjudging the public mood over education catch-up, just as it did when it initially resisted footballer Marcus Rashford’s appeal to extend free school meals to the holidays. Others worry that the people hardest hit by the government’s parsimony over education will be the voters Johnson cherishes most, those recent converts from Labour in the old industrial heartlands.