The Education Secretary was forced to defend the £1.4 billion allocated to free tuition and teacher training over three years after it was described as a “paltry” amount by education leaders.
The fund falls far short of the £15 billion amount that the government’s education recovery tsar Sir Kevan Collins reportedly recommended was required. Experts warn the extra funding equates to just £50 per pupil per year.
However, Mr Williamson gave the strongest hint yet that the school day will be extended in the future, saying he was “very enthusiastic” about the idea.
He also hinted at longer lunches to give children time for extracurricular activities, such as sport, after some schools condensed the break into just half an hour.
The Secretary of State said the government had committed more than £3 billion in total to help children catch up, but told Sky News: “With a recognition that more needs to be done.”
He said ministers would look forward to the spending review later this year to see how they can “go further”.
It is understood that a much wider plan of around £10 billion was still under discussion between government departments as recently as last week but this was rejected by the Treasury.
Asked why he did not get £10billion from the Treasury, he replied: “Maybe this is being a Yorkshireman, but I always thought £1.4billion was a pretty hefty amount. But I do recognise that this is part of a process.”
Pressed on whether more cash was needed to introduce longer learning hours, he replied: “I have no doubt that in order to deliver everything that we have ambitions for, for our children, there will be more that is required.”
The Secretary of State was also forced to defend himself as the man for the job when it was pointed out that Defence Secretary Ben Wallace secured £16.5 billion from the Treasury over four years.
Mr Williamson replied: “Well I’ve managed to get £14.4 billion out of the Treasury not too long ago and on top of the £1.7 billion plus this £1.4 billion so I always like a bit of friendly competition.”
The allocation hints at wider public sector spending constraints as the Treasury looks to tighten the purse strings as the country moves into pandemic recovery.
Wednesday’s announcement includes:
- £1bn for a “national tutoring revolution”, which will pay for 100 million hours of free tuition for pupils, either individually or in small groups.
- £400m to pay for more training for teachers, and funding for schools to support Year 13 pupils who want to repeat their final year.
London school leaders criticised the plan for failing to provide funding to boost pupils’ mental health and wellbeing, which for some has been severely affected by the pandemic, saying academic catch-up is impossible without it.
Steve Chalke, founder of the Oasis Academy chain, said: “Kevan Collins formed a big bold plan for education. This is not that. It is something completely different.
“Children deserve more than this. The government has seemed obsessed with catching up pupil attainment rather than pupil welfare. Attainment and welfare are both important, but unless your mental health is working for you, you are never going to be in the place to be able to learn.”
He said the tutoring programme, which will provide six million children with 15 hour courses of tuition, will be “like spitting in the wind” for struggling families.
Nicola Noble, co-head of Surrey Square primary school in Elephant and Castle said many children are without basics, including food and permanent accommodation. She said: “These things must be addressed to ensure that children can ‘catch up’ and thrive.”
She added: “I am concerned that we are increasingly talking about ‘catch up’ rather than recovery. Tutoring will of course impact on a pupil, but only if they have the right mindset.
“A thoughtful, long term recovery plan is needed in which we must prioritise children’s mental health. If we do this then academic ‘catch up’ will follow, it cannot be rushed and must be taken seriously. Not focusing on children’s well being at this point is a mistake.”
Jo Casebourne, chief executive of the Early Intervention Foundation, which works with disadvantaged children, said: “Good mental health is essential to pupils’ ability to learn effectively. That’s why any school catch-up has to be done hand in hand with additional support for mental health, which for many young people has worsened over the course of the pandemic. If this plan is to work, we must also take action to help schools to provide high-quality mental health support.”
Mr Williamson told the Standard: “I want parents to know that if their children need extra help with catch-up then this huge expansion of tutoring will give them the help they need.
“We’ll continue to roll out our recovery plan and work across government to make sure no child is left behind.”
In a statement, Sir Kevan said a “sustained and comprehensive programme of support” would be needed to get education levels “back on track”, adding that “more will be needed to meet the scale of the challenge”.