The COVID-19 pandemic has caused unprecedented disruption to our school system. Despite being involved in a 2016 cross-government exercise on dealing with an influenza pandemic, the Department for Education (the Department) had no plan for handling disruption of this kind and was unprepared for dealing with the challenges the pandemic presented in early 2020. Consequently, it struggled to react to events in a timely and effective way. The Department set no standards for in-school or remote learning during the rest of the 2019/20 school year and, as a result, children had very unequal experiences. The Department has still not properly assessed its early response in order to learn lessons for the future.
The disruption to schooling had particularly damaging effects on children who were already facing adversity. Although they could continue attending, most vulnerable pupils stopped going to school, and referrals to children’s social care services fell, raising concerns about whether children were being effectively protected. Children with special educational needs and disabilities found remote learning especially difficult, and some lost access to specialist support and equipment, increasing risks to their health and welfare. Disadvantaged children also faced major barriers to effective home learning, which will have exacerbated the gap in attainment between them and their peers.
The Department has much work to do to help children recover from the effects of the disruption caused by the pandemic. Its catch-up programme is intended to help make up for the learning that children have lost since March 2020, but there is already evidence that the targeted elements of the programme may not be reaching the most disadvantaged children. More generally, the Department has worthy aspirations but little specific detail about how it will build the school system back better, including how it will secure best value from the £400 million it has spent on IT equipment to support children’s online learning and the £1.7 billion it has committed to the catch-up programme.