The government need to go back to the books on education

by Olivia O'Mahony, intern


Education is where opportunity is born, or so we are told. Yet, after schools locked their doors and children swapped classrooms for covid lockdowns, the return to the school gates has been an inefficient exercise. 


Schools are currently facing a crisis, and a costly one at that. Falling attainment, low levels of teacher motivation, and a squeezed budget all leave taxpayers wondering where their money is going. Amongst this, schools continue to be burdened by soaring administrative work, with inadequate levels of structural support. What the school system needs is not more money, but systematic reform. 


A world-class education system demands world-class teachers, making the crisis in recruitment concerning. Yet as teachers demand higher wage packets, an unsettling amount of taxpayer money is currently making its way into the hands of private agencies providing temporary staff. The government is failing to recruit in key areas such as maths and science, while money is being spent on non-specialised staff for the classroom. The money is there, but it’s going to the wrong places.


Department for Education figures show that in 2021-2022, £415m was spent on agency supply teaching staff, 51.2 per cent higher than the year previous. This is in addition to the £106.9m spent on supply teachers employed directly by the school. Agency and supply staff add flexibility and capacity. But they are expensive, often inexperienced and unspecialised. The surge in numbers shows a failure to get to grips with recruitment. 


Solving the recruitment crisis is not just about money. Teachers don’t just face issues with their pay packets. They also face problems with workload and wasted time. The burden of administrative work is a well-told tale of the school day. Boris Johnson’s National Tutoring Programme, flagged as the solution to lost teaching time over covid, fell victim to this. Randstad’s axed contract in the scheme's second year is yet another blow to standards of procurement. As increasing numbers of schools drop the programme, citing the administrative work involved, the recurring failure of the government to provide solutions is clear. The National Tutoring Programme became part of the problem itself, patterning headline-grabbing grants given with little eye on the outcome. 


If recent bids are anything to go by, spending on education is not proportionate to outcome. Michael Gove’s time as education secretary saw reforms more productive than any recent funding initiatives. As school spending reached a high point in 2010, Gove rewrote standards and processes at little cost to taxpayers. By expanding the number of academies, schools are able to bypass the administrative burden and adopt more productive models of working.


Yet, these moves were incomplete. In the years since, the government took its eye off the ball. As a result, secondary schools across the country make up a tale of two tiers, with local authorities trapped in the middle. Proper standards cannot be enforced by authorities, who are left picking up the pieces for schools that fail to make the move to multi-academy status. The stagnation of the number of schools switching has further accelerated this issue, leaving educational outcomes across the country increasingly misaligned. Children are left to take the hit. 


The 2022 Schools White Paper tried to address this. Outlining all-academy aspirations and a number of standard-enforcing measures, the plans recognised the demand for greater accountability. Yet nothing came of it, with the resulting Schools Bill scrapped to provide more parliamentary time on the cost of living. The government yet again failed by its own standards. Long-term flaws in the education system were highlighted, only to then be deprioritised. Britain’s services are suffering, and the government has little response. 


What all this points to is a high-cost, cheap outcome system. Despite a skills shortage, our education system is failing to prepare children for the future. In reducing the administrative burden and delivering greater levels of accountability, reform could relieve pressure and aid performance. A core justification for public sector spending comes down to investment, and the education of our children is likely to be as effective as any. So why is the government so complacent in maintaining a broken system?


The continued decline of Britain’s public services in the face of a record tax burden demonstrates the need for widespread reform, and the need to fix the ailing education system should be an obvious priority. With the futures of our children hanging in the balance, it’s time for ministers to go back to the drawing board; ending the reliance on agency staff, poor standards and heavy administrative burdens, and tackling the fundamental problems that are holding schools back.

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