Friday Five: school buildings, austerity, school uniform costs, persistent absence, and vocational qualifications


29th June 2023

1. National Audit Office report finds around 700,000 pupils are learning in school buildings in need of rebuilding or refurbishment

A new report from the National Audit Office (NAO) raises serious concerns about the state of England’s school buildings. It finds that “Following years of underinvestment, the estate’s overall condition is declining and around 700,000 pupils are learning in a school that the responsible body or DfE believes needs major rebuilding or refurbishment”.

The NAO acknowledge that the DfE has improved its understanding of the state of school buildings, which has assisted funding allocations and targeting of schools in the worst condition. However, the report also identifies a major gap between the funding that DfE needs to improve school buildings and what is available to them. Instead, what little money there is is being used to firefight – covering urgent repairs rather than on planned maintenance, which risks poor value for money.

A BBC article illustrates the real-world consequences of this underinvestment. One primary school teacher describes his “worry and panic” at keeping his pupils safe in a school that has had raw sewage come up through the floor “on many occassions”. A teacher in another primary school explains that his classroom hit 32 degrees earlier in the month, due to the state of the building. It is clear that greater investment in school buildings is desperately needed.

Read the NAO report here.

Read the BBC article here.

2. UCL professor captures data on poverty and slippage in children’s height

Professor Michael Marmot, director of the Institute of Health Equity at UCL, gathers a range of evidence on the effects of poverty on reduction in average height of five-year-old children in the UK, as compared to other European and OECD countries. A recent report of the study conducted by the ‘non-communicable diseases risk factor collaboration’ showed that British children who grew up during the years of austerity are falling behind many of their European peers in terms of height. 

In the report, Marmot cites a number of studies that show that height is indeed correlated with one’s socioeconomic position. Looking at data concerning average height of five-year-olds in the UK, he observes that the slower increase in average height of children in the UK as compared with other countries has been more or less continuous from 1985. However, the situation changed dramatically from the mid-2010s (austerity years), when average height actually went down. He opines that it is very likely that this dramatic decrease in heights is linked to deteriorating socio-economic conditions for children and families in the UK. OECD (mostly rich) countries spend an average of $6000 per child per year, whereas the UK spends $4000, leaving it well below average. UNICEF’s measure of relative poverty, which counts children in households at less than 60% median income, shows that the UK ranks 31 out of 41 countries (1 is the best). 

The writer makes a passionate plea of measuring the growth of a society by how well children are doing. He concludes by saying, “ Both Conservatives and Labour in Britain put high priority on economic growth. I would rather see growth and reduction in inequalities in the height of five-year-old children.”

Read the full article here. 

3. School uniforms cost parents hundreds of pounds a year

The Children’s Society, a children’s charity, has found that on average parents spend £287 on primary uniforms and $422 a year on secondary uniforms. It says that parents incur high costs, due to the expectation of owning multiple items of branded clothing as part of a student’s uniform. Governments around the UK have issued guidance that aims to limit the number of logos on items of the school uniform and improve financial support given to parents. Struggles around uniforms have also impacted children’s mental health and wellbeing, the charity has warned. In its latest survey, 22% of parents told them that their child has been put in detention for breaking uniform rules due to being unable to afford the right clothing. A spokesperson for the Department for Education said that it strongly encourages schools to have a uniform, as it can contribute to the ethos of a school but also said that they will continue to work with responsible bodies and schools to ensure the guidance is followed and uniform policies are reasonable. 

 Read the article here

4. Ed Select Committee holds session with Nick Gibb on persistent absence and support for disadvantaged pupils

On Tuesday, the Education Select Committee held a session with the Schools Minister, Nick Gibb, concerning persistent absence and support for disadvantaged pupils. Gibb acknowledged that absence is a major issue and that the government cannot be sure when we can expect a return to pre-Covid levels.

Several issues were discussed, including:

  1. Mental health – There is no one factor that can fully explain the rise of absence and persistent absence (where a child is in school less than 90% of the time). However, the issue of mental health is widely seen as a key contributor. Gibb noted that the situation has been worsened by the challenges young people faced during the pandemic, such as time away from friends. He argued that improving youth mental health has been a priority for government through the Children and Young People’s Mental Health Green Paper, which led to initiatives such as Senior Mental Health Leads in schools.
  2. Absence dashboard – Gibb heralded the success of the attendance dashboard, which has had 81% schools participating, providing useful data and intel on absence, and allowing schools to compare their rates with others across the country. He explained that the government would like the initiative to ultimately become mandatory for schools but that they are pleased with its uptake on a voluntary basis.
  3. Absence codes – Members of the committee floated the idea of having an absence code for ‘mental health’. Gibb argued that it may be difficult to get consistent reporting here, particularly given an absence may not be solely explained by a mental health issue (e.g. physical sickness combined with anxiety).
  4. Working from home – Gibb argued that the increase in working from home may make it easier for parents to allow their child, who might be unhappy at school, to stay at home. He emphasised the need for schools to work with parents to stress the importance of coming to school. He said that it will be a challenge to address issues arising from the lifestyle changes associated with the pandemic.
  5. Attendance Hubs – Gibb explained that the current aim with Attendance Hubs is to test a ‘proof of concept’. He argued that the Hubs approach is a “school-led, professional-led way of spreading best practice” and a “model that has been proven to work”.

Read the Schools Week live tweet thread here.

5. DfE statistics show a continued decline in uptake of higher-level vocational qualifications in England 

Recent figures published by the Department for Education showed that there were 48,500 entrants for Level 4 and Level 5 qualifications in 2021-2022, down from 80,900 in 2015-2016. Experts say that the introduction of higher fees had “severely damaged” the demand for provision of higher-level vocational qualifications, while providers had neglected them. Imran Tahir, a research economist at the Institute for Fiscal Studies, holds that there are likely to be additional factors at play such as the introduction of new qualifications like T-levels and skills bootcamps as well as the uncertainty generated among providers due to the government’s upcoming review of the Level 4 and 5 courses. The current loan model, designed to suit a three-year degree program, is also seen to be unsuitable for building these qualifications into a degree. To bridge the “skills gap” in the UK, especially in areas of acute skill shortages like construction and engineering, higher technical qualifications are considered to be the most effective means. Even as experts have celebrated the increase in the uptake of degree apprenticeship programmes, primarily due to a big governmental drive and introduction of the apprenticeship levy, level 4 and 5 courses have not seen a similar improvement. A DfE spokesperson responded by saying, “We are transforming student finance to make it easier for more people to take level 4 and 5 courses, introducing maintenance loans for flagship higher technical qualifications from September 2023 to put funding on par with degree courses for the first time.”

Read the Times Higher Education article here.