Mark Lehain is Head of Educuation at the Centre for Policy Studies.
Ask people why education is important and you’ll get lots of different views. It’s one of the things that makes it such a fun sector to work in.
Personally, I’d argue that education is a good thing in itself, but there’s no doubt that the wider, more concrete benefits are substantial. Let’s look at a few.
Generally speaking, the more education people complete, the more likely they are to say that they are satisfied with life. When the OECD has asked people if they’re in good health, 66 per cent of those who left school at 16 said yes, 76 per cent of those who left at 18 said yes, and 86 per cent of those who had a degree reported good health.
A child leaving primary school at the “expected standard” in reading, writing, and maths will on average earn between £1000 and £2000 more every year of their working life. The “graduate premium” – how much more graduates earn compared to non-graduates – may be smaller these days as so many more people go to university, it is still a significant 10 per cent.
Finally, people who enjoyed more time in education tend to live longer – with life expectancy around five years higher for those who benefitted from tertiary education compared to those who left school as soon as they could.
So whether the aim is for people to be happier, healthier, richer or live longer lives, as a wise politician said recently, improving education is the closest thing we have to a silver bullet.
And happier, healthier, richer people tend to be better able to go about their lives and help one another with less need of state support: they are more likely to find paying work and earn more when they do; have greater financial means to call upon when the unexpected happens, call upon the NHS less, and so on.
So if we want to lower the demand for government, education, and in particular schools, has a key part to play.
The good news is that in England we have a great story to tell about the job done in recent decades.
With schools, it cannot be said often enough that the reforms of the past 20 years are proving transformative, in particular those pursued since 2010. Provided the reforms are embedded and maintained in future, it should free up government bandwidth to focus on the aspects that haven’t yet been improved as much as they need to be.
Thanks to ongoing work by think tanks, politicians, teachers and others, how children are taught to read has been overhauled, with stunning success. Today there are one million more kids in school that got off to a strong start thanks to the proper teaching of phonics,. Whether it’s the Phonics Screening Check, SATs, or international comparisons such as PIRLS, they all confirm the positive impact made.
The difference this will make to individuals’ lives down the years is huge. All those extra youngsters able to access books and wider learning, and the joy, success, and independence that comes from this, will definitely reduce the demand for government over time.
But the reforms go so much further than phonics and reading. There have been root-and-branch changes to the training that teachers get, when they first enter the profession and beyond, making sure it’s informed by evidence not ideology. Curriculum and exam reforms mean children will leave school knowing more, in more depth.
Importantly, structural reforms mean that the system should better allow improvements to spread across schools more quickly. Encouraging schools to become academies has made educationalists directly accountable for results, not councillors. Well over half of pupils are now in an academy, and there’s no reason why this couldn’t be two-thirds in the near future, given plans for church schools to join “multi-academy trusts” (MATs).
So there is clearly much already in place in our school system that will, over time, enable more people to lead more independent lives and thus reduce the demand for government. But make no mistake, there is still lots more that needs to be done and – trigger warning – some of it will require more government initially to get things going.
There are three things that I think will make the biggest impact. The first two will cost money at first but then pay for themselves over and over; the final one is more about mindset and political will.
Get more schools working together in MATs
There is good evidence now that pupils are better off in a school that is part of a strong MAT, because MATs are able to share staff, expertise, and resources, and get the right support in the right place at the right time. It’s why good trusts can typically raise a primary school’s SATs results by 20 percentage points or more in just a few years.
So if we want more kids to get a great education, and the health, wealth and independence that comes from this, we must get more of the weakest schools into good groups, and quickly. This requires money, both to support the administrative processes required to make it happen but also to incentivise trusts to take such schools on. However, once schools are in strong trusts, they cost less to run and do better for their pupils, so it’s a reform that will pay for itself quite quickly.
Bite the bullet with children’s social care & special needs reform
It doesn’t matter how much money the government puts into the school budget, if it doesn’t push through the changes that are needed to fix the care and special education needs systems, then these will be for nothing. These are systems that exist to support the most vulnerable children and families, and they will always be needed, but they don’t work right now and schools are left picking up the pieces.
This means that issues that could be addressed early get left and cost more later on, or in the worst cases lead to tragedies. Put them right though, and the benefits will be manifest – directly for those concerned, but also through less government work needed later by schools, councils, police, and so on.
Reforms would also go some way to addressing teacher retention. We know, despite what the unions may claim about pay, that working conditions are a major barrier to teacher retention and some of it is as a result of dealing with behaviours and situations which should be addressed by social workers but which, due to lack of time and funding, currently get missed out. Better supported students, parents, and teachers is a win for everybody.
Address the crisis in adult authority
Finally, the elephant in too many rooms: too many adults feel unable to do their role properly because they are scared that they will face complaints or accusations, and be hung out to dry.
Parents scared to challenge their teen’s social media use; teachers unable to talk frankly about pupils’ behaviour; police and children’s services skirting around issues of poor parenting: many working with youngsters will privately tell you we’ve got ourselves tied up in knots, worried about the consequences of treating children like children and parents like parents.
It doesn’t do anyone any favours, least of all young people themselves. We face a calamitous decline in young people’s mental health, with much of it due to adults abrogating their responsibilities. Anything else we do will have nowhere near the impact it could until we step up and help young people be more resilient and less reliant on the state from the off.
The cost to the Exchequer is nothing, but it requires political bravery to start the conversation. The return on that political investment, though, would be massive, and probably do more to reduce the demand for government than anything else in this article.