The Department for Education (the Department) took action to support schools and pupils in response to COVID-19, including ensuring that schools remained open for vulnerable children and funding online resources for those learning at home. Aspects of its response, however, could have been done better or more quickly, and therefore been more effective in mitigating the learning pupils lost as a result of the disruption.
On 23 March 2020, schools first closed to all pupils except vulnerable children and children of critical workers to help limit transmission of the COVID-19 virus. Schools remained closed to most children between March and July, and the challenge presented by so many children having to learn at home was unprecedented.
The Department had no pre-existing plan for managing mass disruption to schooling on the scale caused by COVID-19. From April, the Department developed COVID-19 response plans to support schools and vulnerable children. It also established nine regional education and children’s teams (REACT), which focused particularly on vulnerable children. However, it was not until the end of June that it began to formulate a plan that set out objectives, milestones and risks across the Department. The Department has not yet systematically evaluated its response to the early stages of the pandemic to identify lessons for potential future disruption to schooling.
In the early stages, recognising the challenges that schools were facing, the Department set no requirements for in-school and remote learning, but it gave more direction as the pandemic progressed. The Department decided that, for the 2020/21 academic year, it needed to make clearer schools’ responsibilities for providing remote learning given the continued disruption, and placed a legal duty on schools to deliver this learning. It also strengthened its expectations about the quality of online and offline resources that schools should provide to pupils learning remotely.
Most vulnerable children did not attend school between late March and the end of the summer term, increasing risks to their safety and welfare. The proportion who attended school or college remained below 11% from 23 March to late May, rising to a weekly average of 26% by the end of the summer term. The Department and Ofsted were concerned that this could result in increased levels of hidden harm. A survey of local authorities found there was a 15% decrease in the number of referrals to children’s social care services in the weeks surveyed between 27 April and 16 August, compared with the average for the same period over the previous three years.
Children from different backgrounds had contrasting experiences of remote learning. The Institute for Fiscal Studies found that, at secondary level, 82% of pupils in private schools had received active help, such as online classes, or video and text chat, compared with 47% of secondary state school pupils in the poorest fifth of households. Schools in more deprived areas may have held back from adopting online activities to limit the impact of children’s unequal digital access at home.
The Department funded a national online resource to support remote learning from April onwards. The Department initially provided £500,000 to help fund Oak National Academy, and in June it agreed to give a further £4.34 million. Oak National Academy’s data indicates that on average 220,000 people used its website daily from 20 April to 12 July. Stakeholder groups felt Oak National Academy was a helpful, high-quality resource.
The Department provided laptops, tablets and 4G routers to some children in need of support, focusing on those with a social worker or those who had left care, alongside disadvantaged pupils in year 10. In the summer term, it spent £95.5 million on IT equipment, including on 220,000 laptops and tablets, and 50,000 routers. It did not distribute most of the equipment until June, meaning that many children may not have been able to access remote learning until well into the second half of the summer term. The Department continued to distribute laptops, tablets and routers during the 2020/21 academic year, and by December 2020 it had delivered almost 617,000 items in total.
The disruption to schooling is likely to have long-term adverse effects on children’s learning and development, particularly for those from disadvantaged backgrounds. In a July 2020 survey, the National Foundation for Educational Research found that 98% of teachers considered their pupils were behind where they would normally expect them to be. The Education Endowment Foundation projected that school closures in the 2019/20 academic year might widen the attainment gap between disadvantaged children and their peers by between 11% and 75%, with a median estimate of 36%, likely reversing progress in narrowing the gap since 2011.
In June 2020, the Department announced a £1 billion programme to help children and young people catch up on learning lost during the period of disrupted schooling. The programme consists of a £650 million universal catch-up premium allocated to schools on a per-pupil basis, and a £350 million National Tutoring Programme targeted at disadvantaged children. In February 2021, the Department set out a further £700 million of funding.
The National Tutoring Programme schemes may not reach the most disadvantaged children. Although the tuition partners scheme is aimed at disadvantaged children, the Department has not specified what proportion of children accessing it should be disadvantaged (for example, eligible for pupil premium funding). At February 2021, of the 41,100 children who had started to receive tuition, 44% were eligible for pupil premium. Demand for the academic mentors scheme has outstripped supply. At January 2021, 1,789 eligible schools in disadvantaged areas had requested mentors. By February 2021, mentors had been placed in 1,100 schools, meaning over 600 schools that requested a mentor had not received one.
The NAO recommends that the Department should track the longer-term impact of COVID-19 disruption on all pupils’ development and attainment, focusing particularly on vulnerable and disadvantaged children, and respond to the results. This should include assessing the catch-up programme and acting quickly to ensure it is achieving value for money, and the National Tutoring Programme schemes are reaching disadvantaged children as intended.
“The disruption caused by the COVID-19 pandemic was an unprecedented challenge for the Department for Education and schools. During the early months, the Department gave schools considerable discretion in how they supported their pupils, which reduced demands on schools but contributed to wide variation in the education and support that children received. “The evidence shows that children’s learning and development has been held back by the disruption to normal schooling. It is crucial that the Department monitors the impact of its catch-up arrangements, particularly on disadvantaged children, and acts on the results.”
Gareth Davies, the head of the NAO