Sir Kevan Collins brought in to recover lost learning

Government recognition that school closures will be catastrophic for education has led to the nine-month appointment, with Sir Kevan already being labelled the ‘Covid catch-up tzar.’


In response to the myriad evidence being published to confirm that the lockdown has had a significant negative effect on student learning, especially on those from disadvantaged backgrounds, the Department of Education in England has appointed Sir Kevan Collins as Education Recovery Commissioner.  His role is to develop a long-term plan ‘for helping pupils make up for their lost learning.’ The Government has already pledged £1bn towards this process.  

We have had the privilege of working with Sir Kevan for many years both in London and nationally. As the Chief Executive of Tower Hamlets, he was tasked with ensuring that students in one of London’s most disadvantaged Local Authorities received an education comparable with their more advantaged peers. He followed Christine Gilbert CBE in this role when she was appointed Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Schools in 2006. This connection with the success of the City continued after he left the Local Authority through his work on the Mayor’s Education Fund and at a school level where he continued to work with school governors.  

One of the first actions the coalition government in 2011 did was to adopt the approach favoured by the Obama administration in the USA of centralising bids for elements of school improvement.  They chose to focus upon what worked and what did not in schools. Initially, under the steerage of the Sutton Trust, the Education Endowment Fund was established and Sir Kevan was appointed Chief Executive. 

The Fund quickly established a rigorous research method, similar to that used in the health service and started testing basic assumptions around teaching and learning. They published their results using a pragmatic approach, identifying the characteristics of the students involved, the validity of the findings, cost and impact over time. As well as providing evidence to shape the work of the education profession, the Fund had to match the Government’s funding with sponsorship.  

As Sir Kevan was setting up the EEF, we were establishing Challenge Partners. One of our first ventures was to apply to have one of our programmes evaluated using their protocols. Winning the application gave us additional support and the outcome helped shape our work in the future. Elements of this work can still be seen in the Partnership’s schools today.  

Overall, the work of the EEF was transformational for our approach to school improvement. For now, instead of trawling through a host of research, they provided a reliable and easily accessible source.  This meant that we could readily identify the relevant research element of the knowledge that we needed to improve. It was what they call a ‘game changer’.  

In Olevi we ensured that the findings from their work were reflected in our programmes, using external researchers to ensure we had done so. This contributed to the spread of their work rapidly beyond England.  

Then, as they built up their evidence base, Sir Kevan and his team sought to ensure all schools were using the research they had identified to shape their actions.  This led them to establish Research Schools, led at that stage by Doctor James Richardson. They were to be the hubs of a widespread, overlapping set of collaborative learning communities with a particular mandate to engage underperforming schools in evidence-informed activities.  A number of these were also designated Teaching Schools and some, like Kingsbridge under the leadership of Roger Pope CBE, CEO of Education South West were also members of Challenge Partners.

During this period he also advised the government on how it could tackle underachievement in the key geographical areas it had identified as underperforming and its work on knife crime. 

His latest appointment seems to us to be a natural progression of his work. One which he started as a primary school teacher which inspired a lifetime interest in early years development and evidence-based school improvement.  His roles nationally started when he was appointed National Director of the Primary National Strategy in 2003, a programme introduced by Professor Sir Micheal Barber. 

Now to be successful he has to see the evidence his team has identified put into action. As we have stated before, in order for schools to do this they need to be able to:

It is a school’s capacity to implement these two elements which determine their effectiveness.  

A cautionary tale here will explain what I mean. In the mid 2000s as part of our early work with London Challenge we were invited to work with a number of underperforming schools outside of the City.  As was defined in our theory of action, I went down first to meet the headteachers and to assure them of our good intentions and start the process of matching them with our team of National Leaders in Education. 

During this process I was shown into one headteacher’s office and after the usual pleasantries he said. “I hear you have a PhD in school improvement.” “Yes.” I said. At which point he embarked on  an hour-long diatribe in which he named a vast array of school improvement research, much of which I had never heard of.  Eventually he paused and looking me straight in the eye said. “I tried them all and none of them worked.”  After that there was not much more to say.  So confirming that he knew more about school improvement research than myself and with my head spinning and feeling suitable chastised, I made my way to my next appointment. 

On the train journey home, still rather shell shocked by our meeting, I thought about our conversation and concluded that what he needed was someone who could help him select the right activities for his schools and then critically give him the capacity to manage change.  

We share this with you, for it is in the implementation of the design of school improvement that the next key to Kevan’s work lies.  Not what to do but getting it to work – the ‘how’, and on a national scale. 

Kevan has gained an international reputation for his work and has been rewarded with a knighthood from the Queen and visiting professor status from the University College of London, Institute of Education.  Though extremely busy, Kevan has always found time to support the work of his fellow practitioners. For example he has been a keynote speaker at Challenge Partner’s annual conferences on more than one occasion. 

We have long admired Sir Kevan’s ability to innovate through what sometimes must seem like a sea of treacle that is national policy in education. He is an excellent role model for the profession. He has been able for many years to improve schooling within its overarching, ever-changing political context. We wish him well in his new role, one that is critical for so many of the young people in England.  

Take care and stay safe