Passmores Academy in Harlow was the subject of a riveting 2011 fly-on-the-wall documentary series on Channel 4 called Educating Essex. It followed the lives of teenagers and staff, led by the charismatic, ebullient head teacher Vic Goddard. He has since become hugely influential advocating the importance of education, particularly for the most deprived, and the “pure joy” of teaching. “I have the best job in the world,” he has said frequently in the 13 years since Educating Essex. But not now.

Events last week provide clues as to why. It was revealed that 2 million children require speech and language therapy, many waiting more than a year for care. In 2023, 140,000 children were classed as “severely absent” from school – an increase of 134% since before the pandemic. Last Monday, the government announced 18 more attendance hubs, bringing the total to 32, and £15m for attendance mentor pilots. Then Labour announced measures it would implement, including a register for children in home education. Bridget Phillipson, the shadow education secretary, described Labour as “a party that puts children first”

‘We need significant investment in the initial infrastructure, to help parents access support’: Professor Cathy Creswell, Oxford University Photograph: Linda Nylind/The Guardian

“If there isn’t a change in approach, I’m done,” says Goddard. “I’ve had to make two rounds of redundancies in the past eight years, which means more work for fewer people. Headline funding has got harder but it’s also the relentless and exhausting erosion of the small pots of money that bought speech and language support, and paid for summer schools.

“Now, we are doing the best we can, not the best we can be. My hope is that whoever is in power after the general election, a tsar for inclusion will be appointed. If a child is not in school with a full belly, feeling safe and well equipped, it doesn’t matter what behaviour policy I have in place, it’s not going to help them.”

A teacher for 32 years, Goddard, 55, now oversees six Harlow schools including Passmores, which stays open 364 days a year. Over a third of its pupils have special needs. “Poverty is the single biggest factor stopping our young people from being a success,” he says. “The gap between the advantaged and disadvantaged hasn’t gone away. It’s been there for years, so why are we doing the same old crap? When are we going to realise that something far more fundamental has to happen?”

Anne Longfield agrees. She is the former children’s commissioner for England with decades of campaigning experience. In 2021 she established the Commission on Young Lives that recommended a Sure Start Plus for teenagers to counter the 70% cuts in youth services since 2010. (The Sure Start Plus approach has now been adopted by Yvette Cooper, the shadow home secretary.) This month, drawing on the commission’s work, she launches the Centre for Young Lives, timed as “a once in a generation” opportunity with an election imminent and a potential change of government.

Vic Goddard, former head of Passmores School
‘If a child is not in school with a full belly, feeling safe and well equipped, it doesn’t matter what behaviour policy I have in place’: Vic Goddard, former head of Passmores School. Photograph: Linda Nylind/The Guardian

Last week, Labour leader Keir Starmer pledged: “Our children’s future will be on the ballot paper.”

“Problems are piling up,” Longfield says. “We need investment in prevention but the Treasury is institutionally biased against kids. It would rather pick up the astronomic cost when things fall apart.”

Longfield’s aim is to persuade whoever is in power to become a “children-first government”, appointing a cabinet minister for children, overseeing a costed 10-year plan. She aims to give a future back to a generation that has had so much taken away and to stem the exit of valuable people from public service like Goddard.

“Government has behaved like an irresponsible parent,” she says. “Leaving children at home to play alone with a box of matches and wondering why the house is on fire when it returns.”

The centre will work in a unique collaboration with eight northern Russell Group universities including Liverpool and Leeds, members of the N8 Research Partnership. Their programme, formed a decade ago initially to research child health, wellbeing and paediatrics, along with the Northern Health Science Alliance, has recently produced two damning reports. The reports revealed the devastating disparities between the north and the rest of England. They include, for instance, that prior to the pandemic, on average, £412 was cut per eligible child on Sure Start centres in the north compared with only £283 in the rest of England.

a child raising his hand in the classroom
The gap between advantaged and disadvantaged children hasn’t gone away, head teachers say. Illustration: Observer Design

“We’ve seen the problems grow worse and worse each year,” says Prof Matthew Grenby of Newcastle University, a member of N8. “Working with the centre and others at local, regional and national levels, we hope to activate public opinion to push for policy change. We can say, to government, ‘Try this, we know this works’. We have to build a fairer future for our young.”

The N8 will produce research reports on a range of issues such as autism and mental health feeding into the centre that intends to become “an Institute for Fiscal Studies for children”, referring to the influential thinktank that analyses the impact of government policy on the economy.

“We don’t want to reinvent the wheel, we want to start it turning again,” Longfield says. “For instance, 88% of exclusions are from 10% of schools – why? The level of knowledge and experience is as high now as it has ever been but only the government can harness it at the scale and speed required. We need to ask, ‘Why isn’t Britain the best place for a child to grow up?’ ”

The centre also plans to put children first, drawing on their experiences. Amy’s “happy-go-lucky” son, James, now 13, had 100% attendance in primary school until Year 6 when an “unpredictable” child brought a knife into the playground. On a week’s residential trip after the isolation of lockdown, in spite of a teacher’s promise, James was placed next to the boy in the dormitory. He was so upset, he returned home after three days.

In a large secondary school, he was placed in the same class as the boy. “I must have emailed the tutor and head of year 50 times,” Amy says. “I kept being told James was fine in school so he wasn’t moved to another class.”

Her son began to refuse to attend, distraught every morning. Amy, to her regret, did what the school told her to do – she forced him into class. “I was told make home boring, remove all gadgets, don’t spend time with him.

Anne Longfield, the former children’s commissioner for England
‘We need investment in prevention but the Treasury is institutionally biased against kids’: Anne Longfield, former children’s commissioner for England. Photograph: Gary Calton/The Observer

“He broke, he stayed in his room, in the dark. He regressed and would carry his teddy and a blanket. Our GP couldn’t help because although James had said he wished he was dead, he hadn’t actually tried to kill himself.”

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Amy is a member of Not Fine in School, a support group whose membership has grown from 30,000 to 50,000 in the past year. It points out that the majority of children want to attend school but they can’t. Rewards for attendance, parental fines for absences and too little flexibility for children with neurodiversity, special needs and those who have experienced trauma means that while 100% attendance has become the obsession of all the political parties, what that distracts from is the issue of whether education – and the environment in which it operates – is fit for purpose.

James has not been to school for over a year, missing friends, socialising and a sense of belonging, Amy says, not just an academic life.

A report by the National Audit Office (NAO) in 2022, when it examined support for vulnerable adolescents, said the government had no assessment of what works, why and what constituted value for money.

Confusingly, the NAO discovered that seven ministries were responsible for adolescent young people, there was “a limited understanding of risk factors” and duplication of what was being done. The lifetime social costs of adverse outcomes for all children who have needed a social worker is calculated at £23bn a year. In contrast, Kevan Collins, the post-Covid recovery tsar for pupils, asked government for £15bn and he received £1.4bn. He resigned.

Many schools have had to innovate as the welfare state has become threadbare. Oasis Community Learning, a partner with the new Centre for Young Lives, consists of 54 schools, community based, offering a range of services including food pantries selling subsidised foods; adult learning; youth workers and family support. A city farm and Oasis schools employ 13 mental health workers at a cost of £1m a year. “It’s about working holistically,” Kat Simmonds, CEO of Oasis Community Partnerships says, “…but there is a much bigger need then we can respond too.”

Prof Cathy Creswell of Oxford University and her team have evaluated interventions that, at a relatively low cost, give families with primary school children support that prevents problems escalating. Crucially, however, parents have to have access to the internet and many don’t.

“We need significant investment in the initial infrastructure, to help parents access support,” Creswell says.

“I reject the suggestion that this is about ‘crap parents’. So many, in really difficult circumstances, achieve amazing results for their families with just a little of the right kind of help. We need to realise that investing in children and families is investing in everybody’s future.”

children putting their hands up
21.2% of pupils were persistently absent across the autumn and spring terms 2022/23 Photograph: skynesher/Getty Images

In Leeds, Saleem Tariq, former director of children’s social services, trained himself and his staff in restorative practice. It requires social workers to work with families to build relationships, trust and encourage responsibility. It is a lengthier process than “doing to”, stepping in and removing a child into care, but it bears results and enables families and communities to build on their own strengths.

It led to 200 fewer children taken into care, remaining safely with their families. Tariq now works with other local authorities to support a restorative way of working. Many authorities, he points out, are financially crippled by a national reduction in funding, the spiralling cost of children in residential care and the use of agency staff because of social work vacancies.

“Ten per cent of families referred to children’s services are in circumstances of wilful harm,” Tariq says. “Ninety per cent are struggling in conditions of adversity. When we support them to take better care of their children, they can. The family is the country’s best utility. This government has recognized the shift to family help, the next has to continue.

“That’s not just the right thing to do – the economic case for the taxpayer couldn’t be more stark.”

One of the major aims of the new centre is the use of a metric to measure the levels of vulnerabilities in children, including family income, mental and physical health and special needs, and encourage government to set a reduction target. “We plan an annual report to measure progress,” Longfield explains. “Unless you know the scale of the challenge, how do you know the best way it can be tackled and when you begin to see success?”

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