Without the Department for Education taking faster and more effective recovery action, the legacy of the COVID-19 pandemic will be with us for a long time, damaging the prospects of a generation of children and entrenching disadvantage. The disruption to schooling was one of the most serious consequences of the pandemic, leading to lost learning for many pupils. Disadvantaged pupils suffered most, wiping out a decade of progress in reducing the gap in attainment between them and their peers. We are alarmed that the Department believes it could take a decade more to return the disadvantage gap to pre-pandemic levels.
A key plank of the Department’s recovery programme for schools in England is the National Tutoring Programme. While the Department met its target to provide nearly two million tutoring courses in the 2021/22 school year, 13% of schools—one in eight —did not take part at all in the National Tutoring Programme, meaning their pupils missed out on the opportunity of subsidised tuition. The Department must do more to increase participation to make sure that all pupils get the support they need. Looking ahead, the Department plans to sharply reduce its subsidy for tutoring in 2023/24 and withdraw it completely in 2024/25. There is a risk that, without this central subsidy, the National Tutoring Programme will wither on the vine.
We are not convinced that the Department fully appreciates the pressures schools are under as they seek to help pupils catch up. Among other things, we heard evidence of funding constraints, challenges recruiting and retaining teaching staff, and growing mental health needs among pupils. The Department must do all it can to support schools with these wider challenges if education recovery is to be achieved.
After further delays and much pushing, the Department finally published its improvement plan for special educational needs and disabilities and alternative provision in March 2023. The timetable for implementing the planned changes stretches into 2025 and beyond. Meanwhile the children affected continue to make their way through the school system, many of them without the support they need. We look to the Department to get on with making the necessary improvements as quickly as possible, making clear the respective responsibilities and accountabilities of the education and health systems. We intend to continue to keep a close eye on its progress in doing so.