Are these serious recovery plans? This is a question which needs to be posed given that there has been widespread criticism of the NHS recovery plan for being perfunctorily short and lacking in serious detail. What can we learn from an initial scan of the content?
First education. The most difficult task in working out if there is any substance to the education proposals is trying to disentangle actions from a large volume of rhetoric about what ‘good’ looks like and a lot of narrative about the broad approaches to achieving that.
This leaves the reader pondering on statements explaining that government is “supporting positive destinations for young people”, presumably as opposed to being against or ambivalent about positive destinations for young people.
From what is left (which isn’t a lot) the difficulty is identifying what is new action as opposed to what was already happening. And even there it requires further investigation to find out what predated the pandemic altogether and what is pre-announced Covid response that has already been media released.
The vast majority of the content in this recovery plan is a restatement of pre-existing commitments and at a first reading most of these seem to predate the recovery altogether. There are three big issues which most people would probably identify as the direct challenges of the pandemic – catching up on lost learning, dealing with mental health impacts on pupils and reversing the inevitable widening of educational performance based on social class.
It is quite difficult to identify what the learning catch-up programme is from the information provided. It seems to be a jumble of additional teacher recruitment (which was already underway), grants to NGOs for a summer play scheme and hard-to-pin-down support for extra learning around exams.
The vast majority of the content in this recovery plan is a restatement of pre-existing commitments and at a first reading most of these seem to predate the recovery altogether
Much in this document is the result of summing up of multiple years of activity and knowing this helps to put commitments into perspective. So for example by 2026 the teacher recruitment programme will have put about two thirds of an extra teacher in each school on average and one tenth of an extra member of the support staff. This isn’t significant for education catch-up.
On mental health there is little to report as while the press release claims there will be “access to in-school mental health capacity”, the plan makes clear this is mostly just continuing to fund a system which is already very greatly overstretched. The solution to this is to invest a bit more money, partly to “better manage the waiting list experience”. This seems a strange use of investment.
And on attainment, here we learn that work is well underway to “refresh the Scottish Attainment Challenge”. That was announced in 2015 and for the coming year will constitute the equivalent of about £30,000 per school and a bit over £1 million per local authority. You don’t overcome much of the cascading impact of structural poverty with that level of investment.
If you add up everything and multiply it over five years you can just about get to the headline number of £1 billion, but this really glosses over the underlying detail which is in very large majority the same as what was happening anyway.
Covid Recovery: a fairer future is a much glossier document. It claims to be a “bold and ambitious” plan and directs you to “Figure 1” to get a sense of the boldness and ambition. Figure one contains three statements: “1. Address the systemic inequalities made worse by Covid. 2. Make progress towards a wellbeing economy. 3. Accelerate inclusive person-centred public services” (punctuation added).
Many readers would conclude that this is little more than bald homily with no great substance. That points fairly accurately to what is ahead; an awful lot of self-congratulatory rhetoric (“…we made things happen quickly… [and] had a clarity of ambition…”) and more homilies (“We need strong communities, a vibrant third sector and thriving businesses…”).
But perhaps the most disappointing aspect of a disappointing report is that it has no real analysis of why we have such great structural inequality or what it was about Covid that exacerbated the problem
From there it is a struggle to identify anything substantial which is new. What there is falls into the category of investment of about £60,000 per local authority per year (on average) to “increase accessibility to advice services” or an extra £10 million a year across Scotland for sports or “collective work to improve commissioning and procurement of family support services”.
But perhaps the most disappointing aspect of a disappointing report is that it has no real analysis of why we have such great structural inequality or what it was about Covid that exacerbated the problem. This is most evident in a section on the economy which is indistinguishable in its action points from anything else ever published by the Scottish Government on Scotland’s economy.
These two plans cross reference each other and in turn cross reference at least a dozen other plans in existence, soon to be published or planned for next year. It takes a fair amount of tracing across multiple documents to assemble anything approaching a coherent understanding of what is actually proposed.
The effort involved in doing this is not rewarded. Nothing looks substantially different than it did in 2019 other than the framing (and the inexplicable self-congratulation) and what has been added almost all falls into the category of ‘here’s a new fund of a round number of millions to solve intractable structural problems which are systemic and not fixed by creating new million-pound funds’.
It is difficult not to get the impression that the purpose of these documents is to generate a press release and to provide an answer to the question ‘what are your plans to recover from Covid?’. Sadly, the answer to that question is ‘publish reports’, not ‘do anything fundamentally different than we were doing it before the pandemic’.