Government’s catch-up programme may not be reaching poorest children, watchdog warns

The Government’s flagship catch-up programme for pupils affected by months of school closures may not be reaching the most disadvantaged children, the Whitehall spending watchdog has warned.

Fewer than half of the pupils who have started to receive tuition so far are from low-income families eligible for pupil premium funding, according to the National Audit Office (NAO) report.

Demand for academic mentors in disadvantaged areas has “outstripped supply” as hundreds of schools have still not received an academic mentor despite requesting support, the NAO said.

Chairwoman of the Commons Public Accounts Committee Meg Hillier (pictured) said the Department for Education’s (DfE) “failure to do its homework” has hit children who were already disadvantaged “the hardest”.

As part of the Government’s National Tutoring Programme (NTP), academic mentors are being placed in schools serving disadvantaged communities to help provide intensive catch-up support.

Teach First placed mentors in 1,100 schools by February, but it had received requests for mentors from 1,789 eligible schools, meaning more than 600 disadvantaged schools requesting a mentor had not received one.

As part of the NTP, schools are also being offered subsidised tuition from an approved list of organisations offering one-to-one and small-group tutoring.

The NAO report found that of the 125,200 children allocated a tutoring place by February, 41,100 had started to receive tuition – of whom 44% were eligible for pupil premium funding.

“This raises questions over the extent to which the scheme will reach the most disadvantaged children,” the report from the spending watchdog says.

In June last year, Boris Johnson announced a £1 billion catch-up fund to help pupils in England.

The package included £350 million for the NTP to help the most disadvantaged pupils, and £650 million for schools to help children from all backgrounds catch up.

Looking back at the DfE’s handling of school and college closures during the pandemic, the NAO report concludes that aspects of its response “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.”

It says the DfE could have set clear expectations for in-school and remote learning earlier and “addressed the barriers that disadvantaged children faced more effectively.”

In early April, the DfE considered providing 602,000 laptops or tablets and 100,000 routers to ensure vulnerable children and those in priority year groups had access to digital devices, the report says.

But it adds: “Due to the practical difficulty of supplying devices on this scale, the department decided to focus on all children with a social worker and care leavers, alongside disadvantaged pupils in year 10, a total of 220,000 laptops and tablets, and 50,000 routers.”

“Substantial amounts of equipment did not reach local authorities and academy trusts 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 Whitehall spending watchdog said.

Gareth Davies, the head of the NAO, said: “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.”

Labour MP Ms Hillier said the DfE’s reaction to the pandemic “was slower and less effective” than it could have been.

She said: “DfE’s failure to do its homework has come at the expense of children and has hit those who were already disadvantaged the hardest.

“DfE must now ensure its support is properly targeted to prevent the gap between disadvantaged children and their peers from widening even further.”

Last month, the Prime Minister announced an extra £400 million of funding, on top of the £300 million pledged in January, to help pupils make up lost learning time.

As part of the recovery package, £200 million will fund an expansion of existing tuition programmes for students.

A DfE spokesman said: “This pandemic has caused unprecedented disruption to all areas of life, but we have acted swiftly at every turn to help minimise the impact on pupils’ education and provide extensive support for schools, colleges and early years settings.

“Schools have been open to vulnerable pupils throughout the pandemic, and getting all children back into the classroom, as they are now, has been the department’s number one priority during the periods of national lockdown.

“We have invested over £2 billion into schemes to provide pupils with devices for remote education and ambitious catch-up plans with funding targeted at disadvantaged children and young people who need support the most.”

A Teach First spokesperson said: “Our target was to recruit a minimum of 1,000 academic mentors exclusively for schools serving disadvantaged communities and we recruited over 1,100.

“We’re pleased to have contributed to helping to accelerate the learning of young people from disadvantaged backgrounds through this programme.”

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