Friday Five: school buildings, mental health, Ofsted, poverty, cost of living


8th September 2023

1. IFS find that capital spending on schools is lower than the mid-2000s in real terms

In the context of the alarm raised on lack of safety of school buildings in England, the Institute for Fiscal Studies has analysed historic levels of capital spending in schools and compared it with the actual level of need. They find that capital spending has been lumpy over time, with large increases in mid-2000s owing to the Labour government’s Building Schools for Future programme and consequent upticks in spending between 2009-2011 due to the delays in programme implementation. Since the programme was largely cancelled by the 2010 coalition government, school spending reduced drastically, settling down just above the 2002-2003 levels. After a period of increased spending in 2018-2019, spending has since continued to decline.

The current focus is on risks posed by reinforced autoclaved aerated concrete (RAAC), particularly that in ceilings, roofs and walls. However, according to the report by National Audit Office, the DfE also recognises the safety risks posed by asbestos (contained within 80% of schools responding to a DfE survey) and system-built school buildings (particularly 3,600 school blocks with timber or concrete frames, which are more susceptible to deterioration and hidden structural defects). As per DfE calculations, it needs about £5.3 billion per year from 2021 to 2025 in order to maintain school buildings and mitigate the most serious risks. However, actual funding allocations from government have been more than 40% below this government-assessed level of need. Billy Huband-Thompson, CfEY Associate, recently discussed issues surrounding RAAC and the school estate on the Evening Standard’s ‘The Leader Podcast’.

Read the full article here

2. A scoping review explores mental health issues among first-generation university students

Researchers from the University of Cambridge have mapped existing research (40 peer-reviewed papers) to elicit current understanding of the nature of mental health problems that first generation university students (FGS) face. The study finds that depression and anxiety have been the most frequently discussed mental health problems in FGS in the existing literature.  Of the 23 studies that compared FGS and CGS (continuing-generation students), nine found mental health problems were significantly more  prevalent in FGS than CGS,  eight found no significant differences between FGS and CGS, four had mixed results, and two found that alcohol abuse was more prevalent in CGS than FGS. The review lays out the various factors affecting the mental health of students, including the level of family support, financial factors, institutional culture, sense of belonging, and other personal factors. Existing research shows that mental health problems in FGS do not just have psychological effects but also have repercussions for academic success (performance and persistence). The articles included in the scoping review provide very limited and contradictory information about help-seeking for mental health problems in FGS.

The authors emphasise the need for further research in this field, particularly outside of the United States, using a variety of research designs to gain a more comprehensive understanding of mental health problems in FGS, so that universities can implement evidence-based programs to address these issues helping to ensure that FGS thrive in higher education.

Read the full paper here.

3. Pre-appointment hearing of Sir Martyn Oliver, the government’s pick as the next Ofsted chief inspector

Leader of the Outwood Grange Academies Trust (OGAT), Sir Martyn Oliver, is set to be named the next chief inspector of Ofsted. The Trust is well-known for its record of turning around failing schools in deprived areas, many of which are now ‘good’ or ‘outstanding’- some for the first time in their history. The Trust has also led on helping schools become more efficient and is one of the four that founded the National Institute for Teaching. However, the Trust’s record of high school exclusion rates, use of isolation booths and its practice of assemblies where pupils were reportedly shouted at and humiliated have come under increasing criticism. Oliver himself also sat on the government commission on race, which was widely criticised for underplaying racism.

In his pre-appointment hearing held by the education committee, Oliver said that “It’s arrogant and wrong for a single HMCI to appear every five or in this case seven years and think this is how I want to lead the education system… The last thing the system needs right now is a revolution… They just need a revolving picture”. He said that he has three priority goals. First a ‘big listen’ – “Ofsted needs to be empathetic to the challenges the system is facing…listen to all the services Ofsted inspects”. Second, he wants “inspection of the system by the system” – getting more leaders from professional bodies, the trade unions, to the heads and leaders involved. The third priority is to look at all aspects of education holistically to support disadvantaged and most vulnerable children by bringing all the services together. He said that during Covid “this seeming divide between MATs and LAs really broke down. I was talking to DCSs all the time. Information was just flowing. And I think we’ve got to build upon that now. I want to report in a different way”.

Read Schools Week’s live tweets from the committee here

Read Schools Week’s profile of Sir Martyn Oliver here

4. Report presents a new framework for tackling poverty

A new interim report from the Poverty Strategy Commission gives an overview of the commission’s work since 2022 and presents some key headlines concerning UK poverty. The Commission estimates that a £36bn increase in resources for those in poverty could eradicate UK poverty. While they acknowledge that this level of targeting is unlikely to be possible, “provides a useful benchmark for the level of increase in resources it would take to make a meaningful difference to poverty in the UK”. This is not the Commission making the case for £36bn government or business spending ask. Instead, the authors argue that this £36bn increase in resources could come from a range of sources, such as improved health, greater famility stability, and higher productivity.

Some of the statistics cited in the report make for grim reading. For example:

  • A third of children are in poverty
  • Families in poverty with childcare costs spend 17% of their household net income on childcare, compared to 7% for those not in poverty
  • 27% of those families that include a disabled person live in poverty

In response, the Commission notes that there are a number of poverty-tackling levers. For example: 

  • Increasing benefits awards by 5% for people in poverty would reduce poverty by 515,000
  • Reducing housing costs by 5% for people in poverty could reduce poverty by 255,000
  • Ensuring that everyone in poverty has at least some basic formal qualifications could reduce poverty by 115,000

Read the full report here.

5. New survey reveals the impact of the cost of living crisis on schools

On Thursday, NFER, ASK Research and Nuffield Foundation published the first part of a three-part study looking at the impact of the cost of living crisis on schools, with the first publication focusing on households and pupils.

Again, some incredibly worrying statistics here:

  • Over 70% of primary, secondary and special schools are providing food to pupils through food parcels, food banks, vouchers and subsidised breakfasts
  • >84% of senior leaders across all settings have reported increases in both the number of pupils requiring additional support and level of need
  • Senior leaders report that over a quarter of pupils in mainstream schools currently require mental health and wellbeing support – significantly higher than last year

Teachers also reported being unable to access the necessary support from external agencies, with 50% of primary school and 54% of secondary school teachers reporting being less satisfied with Children and Young People’s Mental Health Services (CYPMHS) and mental health services compared to last year. The authors note that such statistics likely reflect greater pupil demand as well as cost of living pressures on the services themselves.

The authors make several recommendations, including:

  • Extending the current eligibility for free school meals
  • In the short-term
    • Greater financial support for schools to help them address wellbeing and welfare needs, as well as higher costs (e.g. energy and school meals)
    • Additional support for families, which may include revisiting current levels of welfare support and/or additional cost of living payments
  • In the medium term
    • Increasing CYPMHS capacity and other services around families to ensure timely access to appropriate support and specialist services, rather than schools needing to step in to fill such gaps in support

Read the full report here.