The Department for Education (DfE) was “unprepared” to steer the sector through the remote transition forced by the coronavirus pandemic, according to MPs, with “no plan” meaning the government body “struggled to react to events in a timely and effective way”.
A report by the Commons Public Accounts Committee (PAC) has also criticised the DfE for being “surprisingly resistant” to conducting a reflective exercise to analyse the impact of its early response to the pandemic.
The department’s failure to set “standards for in-school or remote learning” for the remainder of the academic year has meant “children had very unequal experiences”, claims the report, with school closures having a “particularly detrimental impact” on students with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND), as well as disadvantaged learners, who have been disproportionately affected by the digital divide which left many unable to access online lessons.
Numbers of vulnerable children who attended school or college remained below 11% until late May 2020, despite the fact they were allowed to attend in-person classes – and only reached a weekly average of 26% by the end of summer.
MPs also voiced their concerns that social care services referrals for children are still declining at an annual rate of around 10%, increasing the risk of exposure to”hidden harm”.
To address the worrying education gap caused by digital poverty, the government launched a £1.7bn catch-up programme to help restore lost learning. However, the PAC’s report states that evidence suggests the initiative may not be resonating with the most disadvantaged pupils, alleging that the DfE had “worthy aspirations but little specific detail” in how it will “build the school system back better” – including how it will maximise value from the £400m it has spent on securing learning technology.
Labour MP Ms Hillier commented: “The pandemic has further exposed a very ugly truth about the children living in poverty and disadvantage who have been hit particularly hard during the pandemic.”
Hillier added that online learning remained “inaccessible” to many students throughout multiple lockdowns, emphasising that the DfE has still not committed to continuing supportive funding for IT in schools. As such, said the MP, institutions “will be expected to fund laptops out of their existing, and already squeezed budgets”.
“The committee was concerned that [the] DfE appears uninterested in learning lessons from earlier in the pandemic, preferring to wait until the public inquiry which won’t report for years,” added Hillier.
“It shows little energy and determination to ensure that it’s catch-up offer is sufficient to undo the damage of the past 14 months.”
“It’s very worrying to hear the conclusion that the DfE ‘seems surprisingly resistant’ to conducting a full review of its response” – Geoff Barton, ASCL
While the government’s National Tutoring Programme (NTP) – launched as part of the catch-up programme – is providing schools with subsidised one-to-one and small-group tuition from an approved list of organisations, the report shows that, as of February this year, less than half (44%) of children receiving such tuition were from disadvantaged families, meaning the programme has not yet reached many of the learners who need it most.
In response to the report, the DfE has said it is waiting to conduct a post-pandemic review alongside other government factions, but the PAC has warned that risks them”learning lessons too late”, leaving them unable to improve future responses.
“The list of failures is extensive” – Paul Whiteman, NAHT
Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL), said: “It’s very worrying to hear the conclusion that the DfE ‘seems surprisingly resistant’ to conducting a full review of its response.
“This would obviously be a very useful and instructive exercise, and ensure that it is much better prepared to face such challenges in the future.”
Paul Whiteman, general secretary of the school leaders’ union NAHT, accused the DfE of “playing catch-up” for the duration of the pandemic, while lauding schools for being “quicker and better than anything centrally managed from Whitehall” throughout multiple lockdowns.
“The list of failures is extensive,” added Whiteman. “While the government has been deliberating, school staff have already been quietly, but determinedly, getting on with the crucial task of supporting pupils.”
In response to the report, a DfE spokesperson commented: “Throughout the pandemic we have acted swiftly at every turn to help minimise the impact on pupils’ education and provide extensive support for schools, colleges and early years settings.
“The department has updated and strengthened its remote education expectations as best practice has developed and schools’ capabilities have increased” – DfE spokesperson
“The department has updated and strengthened its remote education expectations as best practice has developed and schools’ capabilities have increased.
“We have invested over £2bn into schemes to provide pupils with devices for remote education and ambitious catch-up plans with funding targeted at disadvantaged children and young people who need support the most.”