‘…we are investing more now—record sums—in education.’
Boris Johnson, 8 January 2020, House of Commons.
These ‘record sums’, partly explained by the rising number of children in education in England, partly by the extra investment announced last year, will only return funding to 2010 levels in two years’ time. The MP’s boast is disingenuous coming as it does after nearly a decade of underfunding of schools.
Johnson followed this with praise for schools minister Nick Gibb:
‘… I pay tribute, by the way, to my right hon. Friend the Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton (Nick Gibb) — where is he? — who campaigned for so long for synthetic phonics, which has done such a huge amount to help kids to read in this country.’
The PM’s admiration is misplaced. Phonics was already embedded in England before 2010. Ed Balls, former Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families told the House on 21 November 2007:
‘We are implementing phonics and synthetic phonics across every school in the country...’
The PM finished with a hollow soundbite:
‘This is the only country in the G7 where the reading performance of disadvantaged pupils has actually improved since 2009.'
Perhaps the PM forgot that education is a devolved issue. It is the UK as a whole, not just England, which is a member of the G7 and Canada, which is a G7 country, outperformed UK pupils in the 2018 PISA tests.
Maybe the PM was referring to the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS) although no PIRLS test took place in 2009. If so, his adviser should tell him that Northern Ireland’s ten-year-olds scored more highly than their English peers in PIRLS 2011 and 2016.*.
These scores were for all pupils, of course, not just disadvantaged ones. But, even here, the statement is meaningless. The improvement could have been tiny or large. And we would need to know the starting point. England's disadvantaged pupils could be doing worse than, the same as or better than their counterparts in other countries. We don’t know.
The PM will need to do better than pluck half-remembered statistics out of the air when discussing education in England. Bluff and bluster won’t work.
*Scotland and Wales did not take part in PIRLS 2016.