1.The Department seems surprisingly resistant to the idea of conducting a proper lessons-learned exercise on its early response to the pandemic. More than a year on from the start of pandemic, the Department has not yet carried out a full review of its response during the early stages to identify lessons to improve its emergency preparedness and response to any future disruptions. The Department says that it has learnt lessons organically as the pandemic has progressed, and that its handling of the second major closure of schools in the early months of 2021 was better than its approach in spring 2020. It also says that it wants to wait and consider lessons jointly with other government departments, rather than look unilaterally at its own response to the pandemic. In our view, by taking this approach, the Department risks learning lessons too late to improve how it supports the education system in the event of further disruption.
Recommendation: The Department should carry out a systematic lessons-learned exercise, to evaluate its response to the pandemic and identify departmental-specific lessons. It should then write to us, setting out its main findings.
2.Only a small minority of vulnerable children attended school in the early stages of the pandemic, increasing the risk of hidden harm. The Department acknowledges that the pandemic presented real safeguarding challenges. It kept schools open for vulnerable children—for example, those with a social worker or an education, health and care (EHC) plan, or those deemed ‘otherwise vulnerable’—because continued attendance was seen as an important way of safeguarding and supporting them. However, the proportion of vulnerable children who attended school or college remained below 11% from 23 March to late May 2020, and only reached a weekly average of 26% by the end of the summer term. The written evidence we received highlighted concerns about the potential impact of so few vulnerable children attending school. Referrals to children’s social care services for the weeks surveyed between 27 April and 16 August 2020 were around 15% lower than the average for the same period over the previous three years. The Department says that referral levels are still down by around 10% year-on-year, and that there are concerns about ongoing hidden harm to children.
Recommendation: The Department should work with the Association of Directors of Children’s Services to understand why the number of referrals to children’s social care services remains below expected levels, and take action in light of the findings to make sure children are being effectively safeguarded.
3.The disruption to schooling had a particularly detrimental impact on children with special educational needs and disabilities, in terms of both their education and their health. In spring 2020, the Department temporarily changed aspects of the law on EHC needs assessments and plans. While this reduced pressure on schools and local authorities, it meant that some children with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) experienced delays in assessments and did not receive the support they would expect in normal times. While children with an EHC plan were eligible to continue attending school throughout the pandemic, in some cases risk assessments to determine whether children should be in school or at home were carried out without consulting families. The Department accepts that not all schools were confident about educating children with an EHC plan during school closures, and there was local variation in the extent to which schools offered these children a place. Remote learning is especially difficult for children with SEND, and children with complex needs struggled because they did not have at home the specialist support and equipment they would normally have at school. In some cases, restrictions to their normal routine also affected children’s health. The Department concedes that improvements will be needed in the event of future disruption, including better joint working with the Department of Health and Social Care.
Recommendation: The Department should work with the Department of Health and Social Care to identify the specific actions needed to help children with SEND recover from the damage caused during the pandemic.
4.The Department has no vision for building on the investment it has made in IT equipment for vulnerable and disadvantaged children. In the early stages of the pandemic, the Department initially considered trying to provide 602,000 laptops and tablets, and 100,000 4G routers, to priority groups of children. It scaled back these plans, however, and by the end of the summer term 2020 had delivered almost 215,000 laptops or tablets and 50,000 routers for children with a social worker and care leavers, and for disadvantaged children in year 10. The Department continued to distribute IT equipment during the 2020/21 school year, and by March 2021 had provided almost 1.3 million laptops and tablets. The Department intends to strike a balance between centralised procurement and allowing schools the autonomy to make their own choices about IT provision. It aims to support the sector with information and guidance, including through its education technology programme. Schools and local authorities own the IT equipment that the Department distributed during the pandemic. The Department says that it is the responsibility of these bodies to manage the risk of obsolescence and that schools should use their core funding to maintain the provision of suitable equipment.
Recommendation: Access to IT equipment is vital for pupils, both in normal times and in times of disrupted schooling. The Department should set out a plan for how it will ensure that all vulnerable and disadvantaged children have access to IT equipment to support their learning at home. The plan should make clear the roles of the Department, local authorities and schools, and set out what funding will be available to maintain and replace equipment.
5.The Department has not set out how it will judge the effectiveness of the catch-up programme in making up for the learning children lost as a result of the disruption to schooling. The disruption has adversely affected children’s learning and development, with the learning loss greatest among disadvantaged children. The attainment gap between disadvantaged children and their peers is likely to grow significantly as a result of school closures. The Department has committed £1.7 billion to fund catch-up learning, and has commissioned independent evaluations of the National Tutoring Programme schemes, alongside research into how schools are using the £650 million universal catch-up premium in the 2020/21 school year. It says that the National Tutoring Programme schemes, which are intended to focus on disadvantaged children, will be judged on levels of take-up and evidence that children are making significant progress, but it has not articulated what levels of take-up or pupil progression it wants these schemes to achieve, or how it will determine whether the catch-up programme as a whole has been effective.
Recommendation: Alongside its Treasury Minute response, the Department should write to us, setting out clear metrics that it will use to monitor the catch-up learning programme, and what level of performance would represent success.
6.The success of the National Tutoring Programme will depend on the quality of provision and whether it reaches the disadvantaged children who need it most. Previous evaluations by the Education Endowment Foundation indicate that tutoring programmes are effective in supporting children’s learning. However, the Department recognises that the tutoring market is under-developed, and there have been issues with quality and access in the past. As well as supporting disadvantaged children to catch up on lost learning, the Department intends that the National Tutoring Programme schemes will improve quality and grow capacity in the tutoring market. It expects that the ‘tuition partners’ scheme will reach between 200,000 and 250,000 children in 2020/21, and that tutoring will become an integral part of the education system. However, at February 2021, only 44% of children receiving tuition were eligible for pupil premium funding, raising questions over whether the scheme will reach the children who need it most. Also at February 2021, demand for the ‘academic mentors’ scheme had outstripped supply, with more than 600 schools who had requested a mentor not having access to one.
Recommendation: The Department should set out how it intends to gain assurance on the quantity and quality of tutoring and mentoring provided under the National Tutoring Programme. Its response should cover in particular how it intends to ensure there is adequate tutoring and mentoring provision in areas of the country where educational attainment is lower.