Billions extra in schools funding but UK still behind tiny Estonia

Autumn Statement: Key announcements from Jeremy Hunt

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The UK needs a Baltic style education revolution to crack the problem of levelling up ministers have been told after Jeremy Hunt committed an extra £2.3billion a year to the schools in last week’s budget. The demand has come from Labour after claims that it will take 22 years to reach the government’s target of 90 percent of primary school leaves to be up to standard in reading, maths and writing.

Labour’s shadow Education Secretary Brigette Phillipson has been on a fact-finding mission to Estonia which is third in the world education outcome PISA standings only behind China and Singapore.

In comparison, the UK is in 10th place immediately behind Ireland and Poland.

England’s results taken on their own are slightly higher but failings in Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales bring the average down.

Estonia, a former Soviet Republic which won its independence in 1991, has a population of just 1.3 million people but has developed one of the best school systems in the world in the last three decades.

While it runs a similar system to the UK offering comprehensive school education, the main difference appears to be that it invests heavily in preschool learning from 18-months-old with all children given a guaranteed place at the cost of a small fee to parents.

According to a briefing, in Estonia, preschool education is not just childcare, but also part of early learning with a curriculum and substantive and methodological activities.

Although children start school at a relatively late age of seven, many of the activities that in other countries are done at school, Estonian children do in kindergarten in a more playful and relaxed environment. Most children know how to read and write when they start first grade at school.

Ms Phillipson said: “There are lots that the UK can learn from the accessible and affordable childcare that parents get in Estonia.

“Labour will build a modern childcare system, giving parents choices, children the best start in life and the growth our economy needs.”

Estonia also invests in vocational education which many Tory MPs have been pushing for instead of trying to get school leavers to all to go to university.

Ms Phillipson also suggested that the time it was taking to hit targets of 90 percent leaving school with expected levels of reading, writing and maths were impacting any hope to provide levelling up in so-called forgotten communities around the country.

The issue looks set to become a key battleground for the Red Wall seats won from Labour by the Tories in the 2019 election.

Labour’s analysis of official Department of Education data showed that the Conservatives are set to miss targets in their flagship Levelling Up White Paper, which committed to a target of 90 per cent of children achieving expected standards in reading, writing, and maths by 2030, by 40 per cent.

Only 59 per cent of pupils at the end of primary school currently meet the standard for their age group in reading, writing, and maths.

Labour claims that even if the pre-pandemic trend had continued, however, Labour’s analysis found that the Government would miss their 2030 target by almost a quarter and wouldn’t reach 90 per cent of children meeting the standard for their age group until 2043/44, in 22 years’ time.


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Ms Phillipson said: “On this evidence, Conservative promises to ‘level’ up education across our country are a mirage and it’s not hard to see why because, despite the rhetoric, the Conservatives are leaving schools in deprived areas struggling.”

However, criticism by Labour was met with scepticism from Red Wall Tory MP Brendan Clarke-Smith, a former teacher.

He said: “Their record with PISA scores was absolutely dire when they were in charge.”

In fact, the Conservatives pointed out that Britain has gone up nine places in maths in recent years.

In his Budget speech though Mr Hunt has asked for a review by Sir Michael Barber to take English schools up to the highest level.

He said: “Thanks to the efforts of successive education ministers, particularly my RHFs from Surrey Heath and Bognor Regis, we have risen 9 places in the global league tables for maths and reading since 2015.

“I still, however, have concerns that not all school leavers get the skills they need for a modern economy.

“Our current Education Secretary left school at 16 to become an apprentice and knows first-hand why good skills matter.

“There are many important initiatives in place but as Chancellor, I want to know the answer to one simple question: will every young person leave the education system with the skills they would get in Japan, Germany or Switzerland?”

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