While Williamson calls for discipline, our children’s hopes crumble around them | Polly Toynbee

“There is nothing Dickensian about a classroom that is a well-ordered, disciplined environment, where firm and fair teaching gives every child the chance to learn.” So says Wackford Squeers, our abysmally unfit education secretary, who claims children have lacked “discipline and order” during lockdown.

“Behaviour hubs” will act as models to teach other schools how to keep order under the thumb of the minister’s adviser, zero – tolerance-toting Tom Bennett. “If they haven’t learned the importance of basic good manners, of courtesy and of respect for others, they will certainly struggle when it comes to making their way in adult society”, writes Williamson in the Telegraph. But it seems to have done no harm to the education secretary himself, a man sacked from the cabinet in 2019 over alleged leaks from the National Security Council, and recently described by Sir Alan Duncan as “a venomous, self-seeking little shit”.

Running up to local elections in May, expect plenty more such populist posing. This bring-back-the-cane-flavoured riff may be linked to Williamson’s precarious position in a possible reshuffle, though Boris Johnson’s predilection for a cabinet of venal and inadequate ministers should put the education secretary top of the staying-on list. His failures are too legion to list, but let just one stand for the rest. How did he fail on his pandemic promise of free laptops for disadvantaged children to take part in school lessons from home? They never arrived for many, and children were left “sharing devices at home and using mobile phones to complete schoolwork” often at unaffordable cost.

Needless to say, there is no sign that children’s behaviour has worsened during lockdown. Mark Russell, chief executive of the Children’s Society, doesn’t find “any evidence that their behaviour is worse and our practitioners report that on the whole young people have been relieved to get back inside the classroom”. But, he says, there is strong evidence that: “The pandemic has been harmful to children and young people in so many ways. It has left many feeling isolated, missing friends and family and more exposed to risks both inside and outside the home.”

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Here’s his crucial point: “The secretary of state completely misses the bigger issue, which is children’s wellbeing.”

There’s nothing new in that: it’s policy. Since 2010, from the day Michael Gove took over, the approach has been Gradgrind-harsh, as he took down all signs reading Department for Children, Schools and Families and replaced them with plain Department for Education. He banned mention of Every Child Matters, a wraparound programme caring for the whole child. Teachers are not social workers and schools are only for the three Rs and Stem subjects in his myopic Ebacc curriculum, which continues on long after Gove’s departure. Children going hungry is no concern of educationists. Free schools meals eligibility was ruthlessly cut to family incomes of less than £7,400. Labour’s extended schools offering breakfast, tea, homework and after-school activities were dismantled too.

How has this all-too-Dickensian approach gone so far? The gap between the poorest children and the rest has stopped narrowing over the last five years. In fact, for primary school children the gap had started to increase pre-pandemic. In 2019 numbers leaving schools without qualifications had risen to 18%, a 24% increase since 2015. For those on free school meals, 37% left school with no qualifications. In all, after 15 years of schooling, the system fails 98,799 children, who will not be able to apply for apprenticeships, technical courses or most jobs. The persistence of credentialism – the absolute necessity of those vital pieces of paper – widens the gap in life chances as the upper cadres clock up better results (of which the government boasts), while cutting off old routes into good jobs that used to let many who failed at school succeed later.

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In her alarming final report on the state of children’s mental health, worsened in the pandemic, Anne Longfield, retiring children’s commissioner, found referrals for children up by 35%, but only a 4% increase in actual treatments available. In the meantime, the government merely promises to offer NHS-led counselling in schools to only 20-25% of areas by 2023. As for children at risk in vulnerable families, she estimated there were 2.3 million but only 723,000 are in the system to be protected

Time and again, reports show the worsened plight of children in the pandemic, the social gap widening with young people leaving school with good qualifications facing poor prospects in the post-pandemic world. They took the hardest hit to protect the lives of my generation, and they deserve the highest priority on spending now. Imagine, instead of the 8% cut in spending on pupils by the Tories between 2010 and 2018, what an ambitious government could do to change children’s prospects – and the country’s.

Sure Start would be rebuilt, every family registered at their local centre at birth with midwives and health visitors, with the best nursery education and potential problems eased early in life. Imagine every school with wraparound care. Imagine the best technical and skills education, so that university is not the only route to good jobs. Imagine decent holiday schemes for every child: how are working parents expected to cope?

We could have an education system that valued every skill, beyond the rigid Ebacc: in one survey of England’s secondary schools, nine in 10 said they had had to cut art, drama, textiles, music and dance, with 20% fewer taking music GCSE – subjects bringing joy, and a boost to Britain’s vital arts future. Why have so many school playing fields been sold off when sport binds children to schools too? Teachers should be as respected by the government as they are by the public, who rank them high for trust. Instead, they have lost 15% in pay against inflation in the last decade, with wages effectively frozen.

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The prime minister talks about “build back better”, but an authentic pandemic recovery begins with children, not with bridges and tunnels. Imagine a national mission to make life as good as it can be for children: in parks and play spaces; through traffic-calming measures and clean-air policies; with fine schools, leisure centres and libraries. That would be a country better for everyone of every age, and older generations should accept that children come first. But instead we live in the political realm of Gavin Williamson, a planet away from those imaginings.



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