Budget note: great ways to throw money down the drain

So education is rarely a big deal in the budget but even by Conservative standards this was a bad one. No money for teachers during a recruitment and retention crisis. However there was a strange plan to boost Maths by giving £600 to schools who get students to take A Level Maths. Philip Hammond is going to set aside £80 million pounds for this.

The Chancellor said he wanted “highly talented young mathematicians” to be able to “release their potential wherever they live and whatever their background”.

If you want a high skill economy you can’t rely on the students that have made it to A Levels. This isn’t the only measure announced today to tackle Maths but it is the most costly and the others are mainly extensions of existing programmes. Crucially, there is little word on tackling inequalities that build up early in childhood for disadvantaged children. As an important report in numeracy last year noted only half of disadvantaged students reach the necessary levels for Maths by the age of 11. Excellent early years settings have the capacity to untie the knot between educational achievement. We know that effective secondary school interventions typically have effect sizes of 0.2-0.5 when delivered at their best and suffer from considerable ‘fade out’ effects when disadvantaged children move from intervention settings back into challenging classroom environments. A well-designed early years programme can have typically double the effect and is simpler and more cost effective to sustain later in primary and at secondary if students start to fall behind. I don’t think you can do education by numbers but when you are making big spending decisions you need to think carefully about where your money should be spent.

Early years got no mention in this budget; another blow in a long line of blows since the dismantling of Sure Start. This is a disaster for disadvantaged students as they spend their rest of their school career playing catch-up. Its not just Maths: children from wealthier backgrounds typically have been exposed to 30 million more words by the age of 5. This has a significant impact on cognitive ability. Half of the gap in attainment between disadvantaged and none disadvantaged kids at GCSE is apparent at the age of 11.

23% of our children did not get the base level 2 for Mathematics in our 2015 PISA test. You can take issues with these tests if you want but this means that they cannot do the sums that allow them “to solve the kinds of problems that are routinely face by adults.” They cannot compare two distances, for example. This kind of low educational achievement costs us billions. There is a 50 point gap between us and the best educational systems in the world at accelerating progress in Maths and other subjects for those from deprived communities. If you want more mathematicians, don’t just spend on the typically more advantaged kids who will be successful at A Level, ensure that every child from every neighbourhood unleashes their numeracy potential right from the start.

(Labour’s response was something about spending more money than it would take to reclad every tower block in England on free university tuition fees for all which makes you wonder if anyone over there has literally any idea how to ensure children from all backgrounds get the skills the need to succeed in adult life. We are in the midst of an early years funding crisis; sort out your priorities.)

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