The education catch-up money mess is yet another u-turn waiting to happen

·4-min read
<p>‘A very public humiliation over the failure to provide adequate funding for school children to catch up on their lost year’ </p> (PA)

‘A very public humiliation over the failure to provide adequate funding for school children to catch up on their lost year’


Every few years, Boris Johnson wins a large-scale electoral event, usually by miles, and a fairly sizeable chunk of the political pundit community are told to go and hang their heads in shame. He turned London Conservative, not once but twice, he won a huge majority when many were braced for another hung parliament, and there was also that Brexit thing.

Those who live with their noses pressed against the glass of the Westminster clown show, who have seen and suffered so much, are gleefully told how wrong they are. That they just don’t see Boris how the public see him. That their loathing of him over Brexit blinds them, or rather us, to everything else.

It is always a very difficult lesson to learn because frankly, it’s wrong. Repeated electoral triumph does not correct the record of dishonesty or of straightforward moral degeneracy in his private life, but most of all it does not correct the realities of his uniquely opportunistic approach to politics.

There are no other politicians around who would find themselves having to write two newspaper columns, one in support of Brexit, one against. Having to stress test your own convictions in such a way proves they are not real, but merely opportunities for self-advancement.

Johnson governs with the backing of what were once Labour-voting areas, and he knows those votes are on loan. He has said so many times. And while Labour was humiliated in the Hartlepool by-election, it has realistic cause to hope that the next general election is likely to be fought in a far simpler political environment than has become normal in recent years.

Corbyn, Brexit and Covid have rendered any assessment of the two political parties, and where they stand with the voters, almost impossibly difficult.

But that won’t last. Come 2024, it will very much come down to whether or not Boris Johnson has delivered on his promise to “level up” Britain. However, it may very well be that Johnson fails utterly on that front but wins anyway. New analysis shows this week that it was the grey part of the red wall that did it for him.

And elderly voters don’t work, have certain incomes and, for the most part, precious few housing costs. There is little a political party can offer to win them over, apart from more bribes, like free bus passes, the winter fuel allowance and triple-locked pensions, all of which are increasingly hard to justify. (You can, however, scare them off - see “dementia tax”).

But that is not to say that Johnson will not be serious about seeking to deliver on these promises. They are all he has. And as such, a very public humiliation over the failure to provide adequate funding for school children to catch up on their lost year is extremely damaging.

His “education recovery chief”, Sir Kevan Collins, has quit and has pulled precisely zero punches in doing so. Even Gavin Williamson barely bothered to disguise his dissatisfaction in broadcast interviews, at the £1.4bn that had materialised for the purpose, when £13bn had been promised. The amount equates to £50 per pupil. By comparison, the United States is spending £1,500 per pupil and the Netherlands £2,500 has gone very viral indeed.

There appear to be mitigating factors. A larger cash outlay doesn’t, for example, deal with the logistical and administrative problems presented by the most desired solution - lengthening the school day.

But such things do not weigh a feather in the balance against the clear, obvious and now repeated accusations that if the money can’t be found to give back to the country’s children the education they have missed out on, which will, naturally, mean disadvantaged pupils suffering the most, then the levelling up agenda is shown to be complete rubbish.

There could hardly be a clearer example of what needs to be done, but it isn’t happening. The opposition couldn’t ask for a greater gift than the opportunity to point out, to every single parent in the country, that the levelling up talk is just that.

It is already speculated that, in the end, more money will be forthcoming and that a change of direction will be necessary. We have, of course, seen this before, not least in the eventual but certain capitulation in the fight with Marcus Rashford over free school meals.

To do things in this way looks like chaos but there is, in all likelihood, a certain strategy there. There is, Johnson reckons, little harm in being wrong for a while as long as you’re right in the end. Not arriving at a fixed position until it is absolutely necessary means you can carry on being all things to all people for as long as possible.

Those with their noses pressed to the glass have seen all this before. They know what’s going on. The gamble is that the voters don’t, or if they do, that they don’t care. But maybe, just maybe, it can’t carry on being like this forever, without some kind of price to be paid for it.

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