Boris Johnson has been warned he is on a potential collision course with the Government’s race and ethnic disparities commission over the decision to water down school catch-up proposals, The Telegraph can disclose.
Amid mounting pressure on the Prime Minister, sources involved in drawing up the recent landmark report into racial inequality in Britain it had made it “abundantly clear” that more funding for schools was needed.
The commission, chaired by prominent educationalist Dr Tony Sewell, is also understood to have been in regular dialogue with Sir Kevan Collins, who quit as Boris Johnson’s education catch-up tsar on Wednesday amid a funding row with the Treasury.
One commission insider pointed out that a central recommendation of the report had called on ministers to “urgently consider” phasing in an extended school day and that it was “imperative” that this was supported by “additional funding allocation.”
“It is a very spendy set of recommendations. It’s all bound up in the cash,” they added.
The request was also one of the key proposals put forward by Sir Kevan, who on Wednesday accused the Government of a “half-hearted” approach to helping students make up months of lost learning due the pandemic.
Sir Kevan’s departure is understood to have been triggered by Rishi Sunak’s refusal to sign-off on a £15bn rescue, with the Government instead announcing £1.4bn for teacher training and pupil tuition.
Dr Kevan Collins
While the Prime Minister has insisted that more funding is “coming down the track”, ministers have only committed to holding a review into extending the school day ahead of the spending review later this year.
However, Number 10 was yesterday under mounting pressure from senior Tory MPs, Labour and teaching unions to change course, while polling published by Public First and the Centre for Policy Studies also found that 57 per cent of parents would support extending the school day by 30 minutes.
Caroline Nokes, the Conservative chair of the Commons equalities, told The Telegraph on Thursday: “I am very clear that there are significant benefits to the most disadvantaged children in having a longer school day.
“I think the loss of Kevan Collins is undoubtedly a blow for the Government. I absolutely welcome the £3bn package [the total catch up funding announced so far], but the reality is that it is not going to deliver the extended school day that their own Commission said was needed.”
Robert Halfon, the chair of the education committee, told BBC Radio’s Today programme: "Of course there are funding constraints but the Treasury announced over £16 billion extra for defence only last year, we’ve got £800 million being spent on a new research agency, £200 million being spent on a yacht.
"So where there is the political will, the Treasury can find the money from the back of the sofa, and there has to be that political will because we need a long-term plan for education, a proper funding settlement."
They were joined by the Northern Research Group of Tory MPs, with a senior member last night stating: “If the Government truly believes in its levelling up agenda they need to stop nickel-and-diming northern schools. We recognise these are an expensive set of proposals but you can’t level up with a broken education system.”
While Dr Sewell has yet to comment on the controversy, a commission source told The Telegraph that the group were now “watching everything like a hawk”, adding: “The Commission’s view on education was abundantly clear in the education chapter.
“It’s fair to say that the commission did engage with Sir Kevan on a few occasions and everyone reached an accord on these proposals as the right way to do it.
“I think it is potentially all still to play for, it just depends on how much cash can be wrung out.”
However, Treasury insiders argued that the proposals currently lacked a clear evidence base, with one source questioning the public’s appetite to pay for them through higher borrowing, taxes or cuts elsewhere.
“The problem we are grappling with is that we have this relentless belief that the Left has, which is that the only way to solve anything is to spend more money,” one said. “There was no business case for how it would actually work.”
Another pointed out that the £15bn price tag, set over three years, equated to half the annual primary and pre-primary school budget or a third of that provided for secondaries.