Back to school and beyond: Time to fix longstanding problems in education, says new research


In the Media

Professor Len Shackleton quoted in The Telegraph


Professor Len Shackleton writes for CapX

New briefing paper from the Institute of Economic Affairs warns policy cannot solely focus on short-term recovery

  • The long-term costs to individuals and the economy of school closures are likely to be substantial – and will fall most heavily on poorer or otherwise disadvantaged children.

  • It is vital that children return to school as soon as possible but we must ensure there is a Plan B in case further lockdowns are required.

  • We need to do as much as we possibly can to make up for lost learning time. However, we also need to rethink the educational structures and processes that held children back before the pandemic.

  • Now could be the right time to restructure the school year and the length of the school day, reconsider the ages at which children enter and leave primary school, and scrap the requirement for Qualified Teacher Status in maintained schools.

  • There is scope to place more power in the hands of parents and experiment with education vouchers, with the ultimate objective of making it possible for the distinction between state and independent schools to be broken down.

new IEA briefing paper, authored by Editorial and Research Fellow Professor Len Shackleton, examines the deleterious effects of Covid on pupils, explores immediate solutions to reinstating schoolchildren into the classroom, and sets out longer-term reforms to tackle longstanding issues within England’s education system.

School closures may impact all children, but some groups will be affected far worse than others. Not only have we seen regional differences in learning time, but children from the wealthiest third of families have spent around 4.5 additional hours learning than those from the poorest third.

Back to School first addresses the pressing need to get children into the classroom as quickly as possible. It warns that teaching unions may attempt to block their full return, and flags the National Education Union’s refusal to countenance a longer school day or shorter summer holidays without a corresponding increase in pay. Further, innovative solutions such as attendance rotas, or a blend of classroom and remote learning, do not appear to be under active consideration.

That teacher assessments will likely replace exams, the report argues, is “disappointing”. It “should not be beyond exam boards’ ingenuity to devise shorter, alternative modes of assessment that would give some objectivity to these decisions”. Without such external indicators, over-optimistic teacher assessments will prove impossible to moderate, as was the case in 2020, and lead to some injustices.

The paper then explores the longer-term issues in the education system that have been brought to light by the Covid-19 pandemic. England continues to occupy a relatively lowly position in the results table for the international PISA tests of student achievement at age 15; behind Asian countries such as China, Singapore, South Korea and Japan, but also European countries such as Estonia, Netherlands, Poland and Switzerland.

The author makes the case for:

  • Starting primary school aged 6 – when children are “better prepared to learn”. At present, there can be ten or eleven months between the ages of children entering Reception classes, placing the younger children at a disadvantage.

  • Later entry into secondary education – which could benefit those who find it difficult to cope with the change from small, supportive primary school environments to much larger secondary schools.

  • A longer school day – which could improve pupil performance, create more scope for wider extra-curricular activity such as sports, hobby clubs, artistic and cultural activities, and obviate the need for homework – a vector for inequality at secondary school level.

  • Adjusting the structure of the school year – by paring back the long summer holiday that tends to “reduce learning retention and probably has most impact on children from disadvantaged backgrounds”.

  • Changing the “National Contract” – to enable government and school leaders to reshape the school day or year to meet contemporary needs.

Further, the report urges schools to continue utilising tools used during the pandemic. This could include regular use of Zoom links for revision and keeping in touch during holidays. Given teacher responsibilities may therefore be redefined, the case for broadening recruitment beyond those who have undergone traditional teacher training will be strengthened.

Lastly, more power could be placed in the hands of parents, particularly poorer parents. The Pupil Premium could be given to parents to spend on tutorial support or other relevant educational provision. Experiments with education vouchers could also be encouraged, with the ultimate objective of making it possible for the distinction between state and independent schools to be broken down.

Professor Len Shackleton, Editorial and Research Fellow at the Institute of Economic Affairs and author of Back to School, said: 

“Getting our children back into school must be the priority, followed by serious attempts to make up for learning time lost in successive lockdowns. But we must not focus only on catch-up measures. The English educational system has struggled for decades to keep up with the levels of achievement reached by most young people in comparable countries, and continues to fail hundreds of thousands of disadvantaged children. Now is the time to make radical changes in the system to give school leaders more flexibility, parents more choice, and children more individualised support.”


Notes to Editors

Contact: Annabel Denham, Director of Communications, 07540770774

Back to School – and after is under embargo until 00.01 on Monday 22nd February 2021. An embargoed copy of the paper can be found here.

The mission of the Institute of Economic Affairs is to improve understanding of the fundamental institutions of a free society by analysing and expounding the role of markets in solving economic and social problems. The IEA is a registered educational charity and independent of all political parties.