1.On the basis of a report by the Comptroller and Auditor General, we took evidence from the Department for Education (the Department) on its response to the COVID-19 pandemic in spring and summer 2020, and on how it is supporting children to catch up on the learning lost while normal schooling was disrupted.
2.In March 2020, there were almost 21,600 state schools in England, educating 8.2 million pupils aged four to 19. The Department is responsible for the school system, and is ultimately accountable for securing value for money from the funding it provides to schools. For 2020–21, the Department’s budget to support schools’ core activities totalled £47.6 billion.
3.On 18 March 2020, the Government announced that, to help limit transmission of COVID-19, from 23 March schools would close to all pupils except vulnerable children and children of critical workers. Education for most children would therefore take place at home. Schools partially re-opened on 1 June, to children in reception classes and years 1 and 6. In mid-June, schools began providing face-to-face support to students in years 10 and 12 to support their remote learning. But most children did not return to school until the new school year began in September.
4.The Department confirmed that, in 2016, it had taken part in Exercise Cygnus, a cross-government exercise that tested how the UK would respond to a pandemic flu outbreak. In subsequent written evidence, the Department told us that an outcome of Exercise Cygnus had been a focus on how to keep schools open, even in the event of high staff sickness levels, and that the exercise had not focused on school closures as a means of reducing transmission.
5.The Department said that schools worked with local resilience forums and had developed their own closure plans, focusing on local issues such as severe weather conditions. At the start of 2020, however, the Department did not have a plan for managing mass disruption to schooling on the scale caused by COVID-19. In the absence of such a plan, its response to the pandemic was largely reactive, responding to events as they unfolded. The Department has not yet conducted a systematic exercise to evaluate its response during the early stages of the pandemic and identify lessons for potential future disruption to schooling.
6.The Department accepted that, looking back and knowing what it knew now, there were issues it might have handled differently, but told us that it had tried to learn as much as possible throughout the pandemic in order to make changes as it went along. It said, that at each stage, it had sought to draw on lessons from the previous stage and to take account of feedback from schools to inform what it did next. For example, it explained that it had got better at communicating messages to schools – it had issued guidance for the September re-opening in July, giving schools notice not just for the whole of the summer holiday, but for a period at the end of the summer term. It acknowledged, however, that there were times, such as in January 2021, when the situation changed so rapidly that it had been very difficult for it to give schools the notice it would have liked.
7.We asked the Department when it expected to conduct a lessons-learned exercise. It highlighted that the pandemic had often required it to take action collectively with other organisations as it could not respond unilaterally to what was a health situation. It said that any such exercise should therefore be carried out collaboratively with the rest of government in order to draw out consistent lessons.
8.The Department recognised that continued school attendance was an important way of safeguarding and supporting vulnerable children while schools were closed to most pupils. However, the proportion of children defined as in need under the Children Act 1989, or with an education, health and care (EHC) plan, who attended school or college remained below 11% from 23 March to late May, and reached a weekly average of 26% by the end of the summer term.
9.The Department explained that people had been extremely anxious in the early months of the pandemic and had taken the “stay at home” message seriously, and it had therefore been a challenge to persuade them to send their children to school. It said that it had begun to gather information from schools and colleges on patterns of attendance from the first day of the lockdown, and local authorities had given real-time feedback about any issues or concerns. It told us that the important thing was that school had been available for the children who needed to be there, and stressed that it had supported vulnerable children whether they were in school or not, including via the regional education and children’s teams.
10.We asked the Department whether its definition of ‘vulnerable children’ remained relevant in light of the pandemic. The Department explained that two elements of the definition that it used to decide who could access a school place—children with a social worker or an EHC plan—were fixed. But the definition also included an important third category, which was those children whom schools considered vulnerable in other regards. This allowed schools flexibility to take account of factors such as wider home circumstances or mental health issues, and to make sure that places could be made available to the children whom schools knew would suffer if they were not able to access face-to-face education. We challenged the Department about whether schools generally understood and felt empowered to apply this aspect of the definition. The Department agreed to consider whether its guidance could have made clearer that schools had this discretion, and what it could do to help make sure that people felt empowered to make those decisions.
11.The number of referrals to children’s social care services, during the weeks surveyed between 27 April and 16 August 2020, was around 15% lower than the average for the same period over the previous three years. In its written evidence, the NSPCC told us that, under normal circumstances, universal services like schools and children’s centres were vital for detecting and escalating early signs of abuse. It said that there was no national expectation about who was accountable for following up and ensuring children were safe if they did not attend school.
12.The Department told us that there had not been the spike in referrals to children’s social care services which many people had expected when schools fully re-opened in September 2020, and that referrals were still around 10% below normal levels year-on-year. It explained that this raised concern about the potential for ongoing hidden harm to children whose families were not in contact with the social care system.
13.The NSPCC also emphasised that school environments were crucial for the educational and social development of children, acting as places of support for their mental health. The Department highlighted that it had put in place a number of sources of support for children’s mental health during the lockdown period, and had consistently signposted Public Health England’s guidance for parents and professionals. In particular, the Department spoke about the ‘wellbeing for education return’ programme that it had set up for September 2020, which funded expert training for every local authority area to help education staff to respond to the emotional and mental health pressures that some children had faced a as a result of the pandemic. The Department also said that it welcomed the announcement of additional funding from the Department of Health and Social Care to accelerate the roll-out of mental health support teams in schools.
14.On 1 May 2020, the Department temporarily changed aspects of the law on EHC needs assessments and plans, to give local authorities, health commissioning bodies, education providers and other bodies more flexibility in the context of the pandemic. These changes temporarily removed the requirement to complete assessments and plans within a fixed timeframe, and responsible bodies were required only to use their ‘reasonable endeavours’ to secure the provision within an EHC plan. In its written evidence, SENSE (a national charity for those living with complex disabilities) told us that, while it understood the need to relieve pressure on schools, local authorities and health commissioners, the changes had left families without the care and support they relied on to look after their disabled children safely. It also told us that many children’s support had not been fully reinstated, despite the temporary legal changes no longer being in place.
15.Children with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) who had an EHC plan were eligible to continue attending school throughout the pandemic, provided a risk assessment had determined that they would be at least as safe in school as at home. However, SENSE told us that the guidance on how these risk assessments should be conducted or what should be included was insufficient and vague. It said that many of the children it supported had been automatically assessed as being safer at home, and had not been able to access the support they usually received at school, putting them in a vulnerable position. It also suggested that, in some cases, the risk assessments were carried out without the knowledge of, or input from, families. The Department explained that it exercised oversight of these issues through local authorities, who took the lead on EHC plans and risk assessments. In subsequent written evidence, the Department said that it had not asked local authorities to inform it of the outcome of their risk assessments and therefore it did not know how many children these assessments had placed at home.
16.We asked the Department why some schools had felt unable to offer places to children with EHC plans. It told us that the situation changed over the course of the pandemic – for example, attendance of children with EHC plans grew from about 5% in March 2020 to 27% by June, and during the period of disrupted schooling which started in January 2021 the figure was around 37%. But the Department also conceded that there had been regional and school-to-school variation in attendance. It told us that schools’ levels of confidence in making judgements on which children were safe to attend school varied, and that in the future it might look at how to improve the advice and support available to help schools make these decisions.
17.Written evidence we received made it clear that some children with SEND struggled to learn remotely. SENSE told us that home learning resources were not always appropriate or tailored to the needs of children with complex disabilities, and that many children were left without the specialist equipment they needed, making it more difficult for them to communicate and learn remotely. The Institute of Education at the University of Reading highlighted how some parents had to adapt learning materials sent by schools to fit their child’s needs or source alternative materials from elsewhere.
18.We asked the Department what actions it had taken to help children with SEND to learn from home. It told us that it recognised many children with SEND faced real difficulties in learning remotely. As examples of actions it had taken, it highlighted: the SEND-specific provision offered by Oak National Academy which had been welcomed because it allowed people to work at their own pace; expertise on SEND remote education highlighted by its programme for demonstrating good practice in the use of education technology; and SEND-specific components of online training for remote education it was providing to schools.
19.We asked the Department whether it was evaluating the impact of not being able to attend school on the health of children with SEND. In subsequent written evidence, it told us that it would continue to assess the impact of the pandemic and its COVID-19 recovery plans on all pupils, including those with SEND, to ensure that it targeted its support effectively. In addition, during the oral evidence session, the Department said that, in planning for future disruption, it wanted to look at how it had worked jointly with the Department of Health and Social Care—for example, on the identification of clinically extremely vulnerable children.
20.The Department recognised that a lack of IT equipment was likely to hamper the ability of vulnerable and disadvantaged children to learn remotely and access online social care services. It initially considered providing 602,000 laptops or tablets and 100,000 4G routers for vulnerable children and those in all priority groups who did not have access. However, it decided to cut back these plans due to the difficulty of supplying devices on this scale. By the end of the summer term, it 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 confirmed that, during the early phase of the pandemic, it had focused on supporting children at greatest risk and those who were facing exams in the following year.
21.The Department continued to distribute IT equipment during the 2020/21 school year, focusing on disadvantaged children whose schooling had been disrupted or who had been advised to shield for medical reasons. The Department told us that by spring 2021 it had distributed nearly 1.3 million devices and that orders were now coming to an end, indicating that schools had enough devices to cover all of their children who were eligible for free school meals. The Department said that this provision represented an investment of £400 million in IT equipment for schools.
22.In their written evidence, the National Association of Head Teachers and The Children’s Society told us that the limited scope of the Department’s provision in the spring and summer of 2020 meant that many children did not have the devices or internet access they needed. The Department told us that it had been up against global supply constraints, meaning that it had not been able to distribute equipment as quickly as it had wanted. We asked the Department about reports of large families having to share one laptop between many children. The Department explained that if all the children in a family were receiving free school meals, it would hold information on them separately, and each would be eligible to receive a device. It said that schools were still (at the time we took evidence on 25 March) able to order more devices if they needed them.
23.We asked the Department about its plan for remote learning in the future since the laptops that had been distributed would need replacing in due course. The Department told us that the pandemic had shown that there was an appetite for support from the Department. It aimed to provide guidance and information, in particular to build knowledge among schools about what good-quality remote education looks like. But the Department also noted that there was a balance to be struck between doing things centrally and allowing schools the autonomy to make their own choices.
24.The Department clarified that schools or local authorities owned the devices that had been supplied. They would need to decide how to deal with obsolescence and maintain the provision of up-to-date equipment for pupils, using their core budgets.
1 C&AG’s Report, Support for children’s education during the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic, Session 2019–21, HC 1239, 17 March 2021
2 C&AG’s Report, paras 1, 2
3 C&AG’s Report, paras 3, 5
4 Q 16; Letter to Committee from DfE dated 22 April 2021
5 Q 18
6 C&AG’s report, paras 1.4, 1.8, 1.9
7 Q 10
8 Q 25
9 Q 26
10 Qq 11, 25
11 C&AG’s Report, paras 2.3, 2.5
12 Q 51
13 Q 24
14 Q 51
15 Q 56
16 Q 57
17 C&AG’s Report, para 2.8
18 COE0026 NSPCC submission, pages 1–2
19 Q 54
20 Q 52
21 COE0026 NSPCC submission, page 4
22 Q 55
23 Q 85
24 C&AG’s Report, para 1.14
25 COE0014 SENSE submission, page 4
26 C&AG’s Report, para 2.3
27 COE0014 SENSE submission, page 3
28 Q 76
29 Letter to Committee from DfE dated 22 April 2021
30 Q 76
31 COE0014 SENSE submission, pages 5–6
32 COE0022 University of Reading submission, pages 3–4
33 Qq 78–80
34 Qq 112–113; Letter to Committee from DfE dated 22 April 2021
35 Q 77
36 C&AG’s Report, paras 2.18, 2.19 and Figure 6
37 Q 58
38 C&AG’s Report, para 2.22
39 Q 58
40 Q 66
41 COE0003 National Association of Head Teachers submission, page 4; COE0011 Children’s Society submission, pages 3–4
42 Q 60
43 Qq 61–62
44 Qq 64–66