Disadvantaged students up to eight months behind peers

MPs have today expressed doubt about the success of the government’s post pandemic catch-up programmes in education, saying that disadvantaged pupils remain embroiled in an “epidemic” of educational inequality.

In its new report, the cross-party education select committee finds that delivery partner Randstad is not delivering on its targets, and call on the Government to prove the National Tutoring Programme’s efficacy, or else terminate the Randstad signed a contract  

School closures had a significant impact on the majority of children’s learning. The report finds that on average, pupils spent just 2.5 hours learning every day, mental health problems for children rose by 60 per cent and schools faced a ‘spaghetti junction’ of bureaucracy trying to navigate funding avenues to support the re-opening of schools and educational recovery.  

Whilst the almost £5 billion of additional funding provided by the Department for Education is welcome, the report warns that it is not being spent wisely. The Government risks creating more inequalities between the most disadvantaged children and their more well-off peers by not providing support. More work needs to be done by the Department, not just on improving young people’s educational attainment, but also to better support their mental health.  


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According to the report, disadvantaged pupils could be “five, six, seven – in the worst case scenarios – eight months behind” according to their regional data.  The average math learning loss for primary students in Yorkshire and Humber was 5.3 months, compared to 0.5 months in South-West. This was in the second half of the Autumn term 2020.  By March 2021, the National Tutoring Programme had reached 100 per cent of its target numbers of schools in the South-West, 96.1 per cent in the South-East, but just 58.8 per cent in the North-East and 59.3 per cent in the North-West.  

These issues were also highlighted as being deep and rooted.  In December, the Department for Education announced that persistent absence (missing over 10 per cent of sessions) increased to 16.3 per cent in secondary schools in Autumn 2020 which equates to 501,642 pupils out of 3 million secondary-aged young people. Schools with the lowest socioeconomic intake are 10 times more likely than others to have a class-worth full of severely absent pupils. Additionally, over 13,000 young people are missing in critical exam years.  

The report also raised concerns over the pandemic tutoring program, which aims to catch up students who have been affected by pandemic restrictions. Some headteachers described a “bureaucratic nightmare” in navigating the tuition hub and that there was a “lack of communication” with schools about the programme.  

 The National Tutoring Programme has so far reached just 15 per cent of its overall target and only 10% of the target for the tuition pillars of the NTP (52,000 starts against a target of 524,000).  The Department for Education’s own annual report published in December 2021 rated it “critical/ very likely” that the measures to address lost learning will be insufficient. The NAO further reported that the NTP “may not reach the most disadvantaged children”.  On 2 March 2022, Randstad reportedlyEliminated the requirement that tutoring contracts with providers must reach 65 per cent of the pupil premium children.  

The number of children being referred to mental health services in 2019-20 grew by nearly 60% compared with 2017-2018. It now stands at 538,564.   One in six children now suffer from a probable mental health disorder. 16.7 percent 1116-year olds who use social media agree that the number of comments, likes, and shares they receive had an impact upon their mood.  

The report has urged the Department for Education to publish Statistics on a half-termly base on the number start under the National Tutoring Programme. These data must be inclusive of regionality and take into account disadvantage and special educational needs. If the NTP fails meet its targets by Spring then the Department should end its contract with Randstad.  

  Teachers and school staff are familiar with their pupils and can identify the most beneficial interventions. The catch-up programme to date has been fragmented, and a complex bureaucratic system for applications, alongside a ‘spaghetti junction of funding’ may have hampered some schools’ ability to access some elements of the Government’s support. The funding programs should be simplified and merged into a single pot so that schools can access and spend where they have the greatest recovery needs. Future initiatives should direct funding towards schools using existing mechanisms to identify disadvantage, such as pupil prime eligibility. Schools should be held accountable for how their catch-up funding is spent.  

The Department should launch a pilot scheme in the country’s most disadvantaged areas to explore facilitating extra-curricular activities such as sport, music and drama. To understand the extent of mental health problems faced by pupils, the Government must accelerate its commitments to ensure that all schools have a designated Mental Health Lead.  

TThe Government should levy profits from social media companies on their profits and use the revenue to fund online harms and resilience training, which could be distributed through schools.  

The Department must address the issue of persistent and serious absence by working with local authorities and schools to establish proactive measures to encourage students back in school.

Robert Halfon MP is the chair of the education select commission. “School closures for the majority of pupils was a national disaster for children in terms of their learning loss, their mental health, a rise in their safeguarding risks and damage to their life chances. The education catch-up programme and additional £5 billion of funding provision was of course, hugely welcome. But, it is not clear if it is actually working.   

 “Our committee heard that it is not reaching the most disadvantaged children, there are significant regional disparities and there is a real risk of failure through Randstad as the delivery partner. Moreover, it is not reaching the hundreds of thousands of “ghost children” who have not returned to school. The Government must ensure Randstad shapes up, or boot them out.”