Since my last column, we have a new Prime Minister and a new Education Secretary. While this was expected, it adds yet further instability to politics and policy-making. We also have a new children and families minister, Kemi Badenoch, replacing Nadhim Zahawi.
The priorities of the new minister will no doubt emerge over the coming weeks and months. Yet there has never been a greater need for someone with courage, conviction and credibility to step into this role.
Last month, the Education Policy Institute, in partnership with the Fair Education Alliance, published its latest annual report, Education in England. The report shed light on the disadvantage gap (the difference in attainment between those eligible for the Pupil Premium and their peers) and found that, for the first time in recent years, progress in narrowing the gap in the early years and by the end of secondary school has stalled.
Between 2013 and 2017, the disadvantage gap at age five narrowed slightly from 4.6 months to 4.4 months. However, in 2018, the gap widened slightly to 4.5 months and, in 17 local authorities, the gap was more than six months. While the shifts since 2013 are relatively small, the lack of progress in the past few years signals that social mobility is at a standstill in this phase.
Although these findings are disappointing, they are far from surprising when we consider not only the lack of political focus on narrowing the gap in the early years, but also the intentional introduction of regressive policies in recent years.
Since 2009/10, the Sure Start budget has been cut by around £1 billion and around 1,000 Children’s Centres have been closed. The Government has introduced an additional 15 free hours for more affluent families, meaning that children from poorer families access fewer hours of early years provision than their peers. In addition, the qualification levels of the workforce are declining and a reduction in real-terms pay has left around 44 per cent of the workforce reliant on state benefits.
Given all of this, how can we reasonably expect any progress in social mobility? The sector needs more than tokenistic gestures from Government, such as new apps for parents to support children’s learning. These types of policies are not going to create the sea-change needed in order to close the disadvantage gap. The new minister needs to completely redesign the system and create an infrastructure that is both well-resourced and evidence-driven.