Is the Catch-up Programme fit for purpose? – Report Summary

This is a House of Commons Committee report, with recommendations to government. The Government has two months to respond.

Author: Education Committee

Related inquiry: The Government’s Catch-up programme

Date Published: 10 March 2022

Download and Share


Unprecedented school closures and national lockdowns over the last two years have had a devasting impact on our children and young people, many of whom are now facing an epidemic of educational inequality, a worsening mental health crisis, increased safeguarding risks and an adverse effect on their long-term life chances. The Committee notes that schools did remain open for children of key workers and vulnerable children (although many did not attend) and we would like to extend our gratitude to the teachers and support staff who did everything possible to keep children learning. One 2020 study found that children locked down at home in the UK spent an average of only 2.5 hours each day doing schoolwork, and one fifth of pupils did no schoolwork at home, or less than one hour a day. School closures have been nothing short of a national disaster for children and young people. Equally alarmingly, even though schools have now re-opened, absence remains high. As of 10 February, 182,000 pupils were absent for Covid-related reasons.

The Government has made some welcome efforts to tackle these issues and help children catch up. The Department’s catch-up efforts have included a series of funding announcements for catch-up premiums and tuition programmes, totalling nearly £5 billion. However, current plans do not go far enough. The Department’s own 2020/21 annual account rated it a “critical/very likely” risk that the Department’s measures to address lost learning and the “implementation of education recovery, digital strategy, and remote education, at school/college level may be insufficient to adequately respond to the lost learning”.

The Government must re-focus its catch-up efforts if it wants to ensure pupils recover from the effects of the pandemic.

The impact of the pandemic on children and young people

While there is some uncertainty over the exact extent of learning loss, it is clear that school closures have had a disastrous impact on children’s academic progress, with disadvantaged children and those living in disadvantage areas the worse hit.

  • By the summer term 2021, primary pupils had lost around 0.9 months in reading and 2.2 months in mathematics. Secondary-aged pupils were around 1.2 months behind in reading
  • By the summer term 2021, the gap between disadvantaged pupils and their more affluent peers in reading was around “0.4 months for primary aged pupils and around 1.6 months for secondary pupils”

However, the Education Policy Institute (EPI) told us that in our most challenging communities, disadvantaged pupils could be “five, six, seven–in the worst-case scenarios eight–months behind in some of their learning”.

We are also concerned about the regional variations in learning loss. Pupils in the North-East and Yorkshire and the Humber experienced the greatest learning loss in the first half of the autumn term 2020/21 (around 2.4 months and 2.3 months respectively in primary, and around 1.6 and 2.5 months respectively in secondary). The same areas also experienced the greatest loss in mathematics (around 5.1 and 5.7 months respectively). This was more than double the loss experienced in the South West and London.

The National Tutoring Programme itself–the Government’s flagship Catch-up programme–also appears to be failing the most disadvantaged. By March 2021 the NTP had reached 100% of its target numbers of schools in the south-west of England and 96.1% in the south-east, but just 58.8% in the north-east, 58.9% in Yorkshire and the Humber and 59.3% in the north-west.

We do not yet know whether this regional inequality has improved or declined further during the 2021/22 academic year. Neither Randstad (the NTP’s current provider) or the Department have been able to tell us if targets for delivering tuition to disadvantaged children are being met. What we do know is that as of 12 December 2021 just 52,000 courses had been started by pupils through the tuition partners pillar–10% of Randstad’s target for this year. Witnesses who gave evidence also told us that the programme was a “bureaucratic nightmare” and that Randstad’s online tuition hub was “dysfunctional”.

We have also heard that Children and young people are now facing what amounts to a mental health crisis, exacerbated by the pandemic, with around one in six 6-to-16-year-olds now having a probable mental health disorder. Witnesses told us that one of the biggest issues facing schools is children accessing social media. Research has found that heavy social media use is associated with worse mental health outcomes, such as low self-esteem, and Barnardo’s have reported that 78% of practitioners said that they had worked with children aged 11–15 who had accessed unsuitable or harmful content.

What should be done?

End the spaghetti junction of funding

While the Department’s series of funding announcements and catch-up premiums, which have amounted to nearly £5 billion, are welcome, we believe that these current efforts amount to a ‘spaghetti junction of funding’, which has at times been challenging for schools to navigate or use to their best advantage. Future investment in education recovery must be directed to schools, who know their pupils and their needs the best. Any future catch-up initiatives should direct funding to schools using existing mechanisms for identifying disadvantage, such as pupil premium eligibility and the Income Deprivation Affecting Children Index, to ensure schools in the most disadvantaged regions receive more.

Hold the National Tutoring Programme to account

The NTP is missing its overall target to deliver tuition to 2 million children. When Randstad appeared before us, they were unable to provide us with figures setting out who was accessing the NTP and what take up was like in different parts of the country. The lack of transparency regarding the availability of this data is a huge concern. We recommend that the Department should publish half termly information about how many children are accessing the programme, including information on pupil characteristics and regional breakdowns. If the NTP is not meeting its targets, the Department should terminate its contract with Randstad.

Give children more time in school to boost their wellbeing

We heard about the enormous benefits extra-curricular enrichment activities–such as sports, music and drama–can provide to boost academic attainment and improve young people’s mental health and wellbeing. A study commissioned by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport found that underachieving young people who took part in extra-curricular sporting activities improved their numeracy by 29% above those who did not participate in sport. The Centre for Social Justice (CSJ) has also highlighted an evaluation of 1,500 schools which extended their days, 97% of which offered activities such as sport, music, arts and study support as part of this. 71% of these schools reported that this helped them engage with disadvantage families and 69% of schools found it had at least some influence in raising attainment. The CSJ has called for all secondary pupils to do “at least 5 hours of extra-curricular enrichment every school week”.

Ensuring all pupils have access to extra-curricular activities and more time in school could be beneficial for pupils. The Department must introduce a pilot of optional extra-curricular activities for children to help improve academic attainment and wellbeing. The pilot should be trialled in areas of disadvantage across the country. If this pilot proves effective, the Department should include the necessary funding to support a wider provision in the next spending review.

Mental health lead in every school

Even before the pandemic, the mental health situation facing our young people was alarming. In 2019–20 the number of children being referred for mental health help rose to 538,564, an increase of 35% from 2018–19 and up nearly 60% from 2017–18. Analysis by the Office of the former Children’s Commissioner found that despite this 35% increase in referrals, the number of children accessing treatment increased by just 4%.

With around one in six 6-to-16-year-olds now having a probable mental health disorder, we need the Government to move faster on its commitment to make sure all schools have a senior mental health lead and access to mental support teams. We also heard about the importance of developing mental health resilience in children through “micro” tools in lessons, such as a “no hands-up policy” when answering questions in the classroom.

We recommend that all children should undergo a mental health and wellbeing assessment to understand the scale of the problem, and schools may wish to direct some of the recovery funding to address mental health difficulties. Given the resource constraints facing mental health services even before the pandemic, we recognise that this would be challenging—and that schools know their pupils best. We know that Ofsted inspectors will be looking at how subject leaders and teachers have identified and responded to pupils’ learning gaps as a result of the pandemic. Ofsted should make it clear in their guidance that they will also look for evidence that schools have sought to identify and respond to the mental health and wellbeing needs of their students.