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The trillion pound challenge: why children's learning and wellbeing must be at the heart of the Covid recovery plan


29 Apr 2021

As new analysis highlights the potential social and economic costs of lost learning through the Covid-19 pandemic, EIF director of evidence Tom McBride makes the case for strong and broad investment to maximise the gains from the national school catch-up programme.

Spring for many of us can feel like an optimistic time of year. That optimism may be even higher this year, as the restrictions which have been a part of day-to-day life for the last 15 months are gradually lifted. While Covid-19 clearly remains a threat – and tragically continues to take lives here and around the world – the steady decline of cases, coupled with the success of the vaccination rollout, means that in the UK our attention is shifting from managing the pandemic to understanding and addressing its social and economic costs.

In terms of immediate policy responses, the greatest focus to date has been on education, where Sir Kevan Collins has been appointed to oversee the education catch-up at the national level. There is good reason to think that the challenge Sir Kevan faces is significant. A series of reports estimated that the average loss in learning among primary school children was equivalent to 1–3 months in numeracy and literacy by autumn 2020. These reports also indicate that disadvantaged pupils and those with lower levels of ability experienced the greatest loss in learning, presumably as these are the ones who have struggled most with the transition to home schooling and virtual learning. And, although the data is still emerging, the second closure of schools after the Christmas break is very likely to have increased the level of learning loss further still. New research out this week has highlighted the impact on speech and language skills, for example, and further data and analysis is sure to follow.

Last week, the Education Policy Institute (EPI) made an important contribution to the debate on education catch-up by estimating the cost of education recovery, which in England they put at £10–15 billion. EPI’s analysis is based on their assumption that the loss of 23 weeks of normal face-to-face instruction over the past year equates to an average of 3–4 months of lost learning per pupil. In England, we typically spend £12–16 billion on schools over a 3–4-month period, and so EPI estimates that up to £15 billion will be needed to address this learning shortfall and lift pupils back up to the level they otherwise would have reached had schooling continued as usual. This is clearly a very large number. It equates to £1,500–£2,000 per pupil in England, which is significantly more than the £250 per pupil (£1.7 billion in total) committed so far. Interestingly, however, it is more in line with commitments made by the US (£1,600 per pupil) and the Netherlands (£2,500 per pupil).

Nonetheless, as large as these figures are, we must consider them against the alternative of not acting with sufficient force. Estimating the long-run costs of not addressing the loss of learning is challenging, but EPI puts it at least £62 billion in lost lifetime earnings and potentially up to £420 billion. They also say that focusing on earnings may well underestimate the total cost of not acting, pointing to the OECD’s estimate of the cost to the UK economy over the next 80 years from not addressing learning loss of £3 trillion, which reflects in part the critical importance of an educated workforce to our own future wellbeing and economic success. We need to ask if we can afford not to take bold steps.

EPI does not make suggestions in this report on how the money should be spent – that will follow in their report in May – but longer school days, summer schools and weekend catch-up classes have all been suggested elsewhere as approaches worth considering. However, given that we can’t conjure an additional four months out of thin air, we must presume that a large part of the solution will have to be delivered within the current school timetable, and will likely require high-quality targeted support for those who are experiencing the most significant challenges. Right alongside this debate, there are also valid questions to as to whether it is sufficiently ambitious simply to return the education system to where it otherwise would have been, or whether now is the time to increase efforts to address critical issues, such as the gap in educational outcomes between disadvantaged children and their peers, many of which pre-date the Covid crisis altogether but will have been exacerbated by it.

It is important to remember that ensuring that any additional money is spent on high-quality and well-evidenced approaches is as important as the overall quantum of money made available. However, we welcome the realistic note that EPI has struck in pointing out that a very significant and broad investment will be required. To make a success of any additional academic support, measures to bolster children’s mental health and wellbeing must be integrated into the government’s catch-up strategy for schools, and sufficient investment in well-evidenced approaches to meet this need must be a key plank in any plans which are meant to ensure children are not left with negative lifelong outcomes as a result of living through the pandemic.

As the government moves forward, we hope there will be similar realism in other areas of children’s policy. In addressing post-lockdown concerns about wider mental health problems, domestic abuse or support for families and parents under pressure, as in education, we must ask ourselves what the appropriate level of ambition is, and whether the pandemic provides an opportunity to make substantive improvements to children’s services and better support those at risk of poor outcomes. 

There are tough fiscal choices ahead for the government – but failing to invest in high-quality services for children would cast a long shadow, economically and socially. For good reason, the focus of the Covid response has been on protecting the health of older and more vulnerable adult populations. Now, it must be recognised that children and young people have paid a high price to protect the nation’s health. Investment in prevention and early intervention services to help younger generations to avoid the worst impacts of the pandemic on their life chances is right for them and right for the country.