CHILDREN ARE GENERALLY MAKING PROGRESS to recover the learning they lost during the Covid-19 pandemic following action taken by the Department for Education (DfE), but disadvantaged pupils remain further behind the expected level of attainment than other pupils, according to a new report by the National Audit Office (NAO).

The NAO’s report Education recovery in schools in England shows variation in how far and how quickly pupils have recovered learning. In summer 2021, pupils were on average 2.2, 0.9 and 1.2 months behind the expected level of attainment in primary maths, primary reading and secondary reading respectively. This compared with 3.6, 1.8 and 1.5 months in autumn 2020.

Learning loss for disadvantaged pupils has been consistently greater than for pupils overall and, as a result, the gap in attainment has grown since 2019. The disadvantage gap index (a measure of the difference in attainment between disadvantaged and other pupils) at the end of primary school was 3.23 in 2022, compared with 2.91 in 2019. Left unaddressed, lost learning may lead to increased disadvantage and significant missing future earnings for those affected.

Disruption to schooling during the Covid-19 pandemic led to lost learning for many pupils, particularly disadvantaged children. DfE’s response was to implement a £3.5 billion package of measures, extending across four academic years (2020/21 to 2023/24), to support education recovery in schools. The main interventions were: the National Tutoring Programme (NTP); and extra direct funding for schools in the form of the catch-up premium (a per-pupil funding allocation for all schools) in 2020/21 and the recovery premium (an allocation which for primary and secondary schools is based on the number of disadvantaged pupils they have) in subsequent years.

To get the NTP running quickly in 2020, DfE appointed the Education Endowment Foundation and Teach First to run the tuition partners and academic mentors schemes respectively. For 2021/22, DfE appointed a single contractor, Randstad, to manage both schemes. In September 2021, DfE introduced a school-led tutoring scheme to the NTP, in response to feedback from schools that logistical factors (such as the amount of management time needed) were deterring them from engaging with the existing tutoring schemes. For 2022/23, DfE decided not to extend its contract with Randstad and to allocate all NTP funding directly to schools.

By the end of 2021/22, pupils had started 2.5 million courses under the NTP. Take-up of the NTP tuition partners and academic mentors schemes in 2021/22 was lower than DfE expected, but school-led tutoring more than made up the shortfall. In 2021/22, the number of courses started was 45 per cent of DfE’s target for tuition partners and 65% for academic mentors. School-led tutoring proved more popular with schools than the other schemes and accounted for 81 per cent of all the tuition courses started in 2021/22. More than 1.3 million pupils (one in five) received school-led tutoring. Overall, 87 per cent of schools took part in some form of tutoring in 2021/22.

DfE set out to focus the NTP on disadvantaged children, although schools were free to choose which pupils would benefit most from support. In 2021/22, around half of the pupils receiving tutoring under the NTP were disadvantaged. The proportion was 51 per cent for the tuition partners scheme, short of DfE’s target of 65 per cent for that scheme, and 47 per cent for school-led tutoring.

Schools were given freedom to decide how to use the catch-up and recovery premiums and DfE has not routinely collected information on how this funding was used. It requires schools to publish a statement each year explaining how they plan to spend the recovery premium and demonstrating that their approach is informed by evidence on what will help pupils catch up on lost learning.

The NAO recommends that DfE should further develop its approach to monitoring progress towards achieving its ambitions for pupils’ attainment, and report regularly on progress. DfE should also model the impact of withdrawing the subsidy for the NTP and the recovery premium after 2023/24, to assess whether tutoring in schools is financially sustainable given DfE’s objective for tutoring to become embedded in the school system.

Gareth Davies, the head of the NAO, said: “The Department for Education needed to take action to support pupils to make up the learning they lost during the Covid-19 pandemic and reach children who had been disproportionately affected by the disruption to schooling.

“Despite the progress that is being made, it is concerning that learning loss for disadvantaged pupils remains greater than for other pupils. It is vital that the Department maintains its focus on education recovery in the coming years to help all children to catch up and to close the attainment gap between disadvantaged and other pupils.”

Commenting on the report, Rosamund McNeil, Assistant General Secretary of the National Education Union, said: “The NAO’s report highlights the distance still to cover in closing the attainment gap between disadvantaged pupils and their peers. The disadvantage gap continues to be wider than it was in 2019. The report makes clear that the Government has wasted valuable time diverting funds to third-party providers, limiting uptake of education recovery programmes such as the National Tutoring Programme, and failing to ensure that tutoring was always directed towards the most disadvantaged pupils.

“The NEU’s evidence to the NAO made clear that the pandemic hit after a decade of underfunding and neglect of education. Pressures on school budgets exacerbated recruitment, retention and workload pressures that left teachers and schools without the tools they needed to respond to crises.

“In its paltry response, the Government provided less than a third of the funding its own education recovery commissioner recommended, and now shows every intention of pulling further funding from the National Tutoring Programme, leaving schools to pick up the pieces.

“The Government must commit to providing adequate funding for education recovery, directly to schools. The Government must commit to a fully-funded, above inflation pay rise for school staff, to ensure we address the urgent recruitment and retention challenge, itself a risk to education recovery.”

* Read Education recovery in schools in England here.

* Sources: National Audit Office and National Education Union