Manifesto 2024

Five policy priorities for closing disadvantage gaps

Five policies to restart the virtuous cycle between educational outcomes and economic prosperity

Five policies to restart the virtuous cycle between educational outcomes and economic prosperity

8 Mar 2024, 5:00

Recently I met a retired politician, a household name, and asked him why, when poverty is such a glaring cause of problems and unfairness, no political party seemed willing to put it front and centre of their strategy for government. His answer was telling: “Because it’s too difficult”.

Well, I disagree; we just need braver politicians. And here are some policies I think they should introduce.

A new ‘Treasury orthodoxy’

The gap between rich and poor students remains unacceptably wide. Social class, the random accident of birth, reduces the educational outcomes for lower-income children. Differences in attainment inevitably become differences in future quality of life.

Schools cannot properly educate children who are hungry or cold, who live in inadequate housing or whose families cannot access timely medical care.  Any government seriously wanting to fix educational inequality must tackle wider societal ills.

This requires the replacement of inadequate or non-existent social housing and a rethink in the Treasury away from seeing such capital expenditure as a cost rather than investment.

A focus on the early years

Around 40 per cent of the disadvantage gap in education is apparent by age 5. Closing that gap before it opens wide would be powerful in cutting inequality. The current disarray in early years education is inexcusable, and a promise of up to 30 funded hours a week during term-time is insufficient to allow most parents to return to full-time work or training.

Targeted interventions

The pupil premium was a good idea. For a while it worked. But to become more than just a top-up for overstretched budgets, it needs to be substantially increased and coupled with a renewed focus on the outcomes of low-income children. And we need full funding for a national tutoring service for these children.

There are over half a million surplus primary places and numbers are falling; a determined government would keep total school funding constant in order to fund a rise in the pupil premium and a targeted national tutoring scheme. 

Attendance and mental health

We all know that attendance issues are the long tail of Covid. Every school in disadvantaged areas needs funding for one or more attendance officers, trained to chase down absence and put families in contact with services including mental health and housing.

The government scheme to provide a mental health lead in each school and more mental health support teams is fine, but the target to cover half of children by March 2025 simply lacks ambition. At Harris we fundraised for a team of 5 mental health advisers. They do valuable work, but can only scratch the surface in a MAT with 43,000 students.

Accelerated government funding along with the ambition to reach all pupils within a year is needed, rolled out in disadvantaged areas first where the problems are greatest.

Fairer funding and admissions

The National Funding Formula led to additional funding being targeted towards schools with historically less funding. Unfortunately, these tend to be in better-off communities. All schools need more funding, but making a relative allocation away from disadvantaged pupils only makes entrenched problems much, much worse.

Schools in advantaged areas tend to have better Progress 8 scores and Ofsted outcomes. Why then do they also admit so few disadvantaged students? Should it not be intuitively obvious that the neediest children should have a greater chance of going to the best schools? Admissions policies need to be changed so that high-performing schools admit at least the national average of low-income students.

If VAT goes on school fees, parents priced out of private education will seek places in grammar schools, which on average already admit proportionately few disadvantaged children. No grammar should be allowed to retain its selective status unless it changes this. 

There are good economic reasons why this can’t all be funded immediately. But the next government must make an early start on kickstarting a virtuous cycle: A joined up anti-poverty strategy and more public spending will improve educational outcomes, and better educational outcomes are key to growth and productivity, which in turn means the strategy will pay for itself. That doesn’t seem so difficult to me.

This article is part of a series of sector-led policies in the run-up to the next general election. Read all the others here

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One comment

  1. John Egan

    Poverty is the great divider and education on its own cannot solve it. We just scratch the surface in school. We do need a ‘Poverty Tzar’ to lead a joined up appoach