Covid-19: The DfE has 'made far too many missteps'

Written by: Pete Henshaw | Published:
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The National Audit Office's report card on ministers' management of education during Covid has sparked a scathing response about some of the DfE's 'missteps' and 'tone-deaf decisions'. There is also concern that the National Tutoring Programme is not reaching the most disadvantaged pupils. Pete Henshaw reports

From “tone-deaf” decisions over free school meals to chaotic, last-minute guidance, and the ill-fated laptop scheme, the Department for Education “made far too many missteps” during the pandemic, school leaders have said.

The “nadir” came in December when ministers threatened schools with legal action if they went ahead with plans to move to remote learning to avoid families having to self-isolate at Christmas.

The scathing response comes as the National Audit Office has published a report looking at the DfE’s performance during the pandemic (NAO, 2021) and its plans to support education recovery.

Look forward: NTP not reaching the disadvantaged?

Perhaps most vitally, given the pandemic’s impact on the most disadvantaged children, the NAO raises concerns that only 44 per cent of pupils who have been allocated a place on the National Tutoring Programme (NTP) are eligible for the Pupil Premium.

Last year, the Education Endowment Foundation projected that school closures in the 2019/20 academic year might widen the attainment gap between disadvantaged children and their peers by 36 per cent, likely reversing progress in narrowing the gap since 2011.

The NTP is a core strand of the DfE’s response and saw initial funding allocated worth £350m over two academic years – 2020-22. A further £83m was announced in January.

Much of the money has gone to private companies in order that they offer schools subsidised one-to-one or small group tuition services. As of February, 125,200 children had been allocated a tutoring place across 3,984 schools. This is shy of the DfE’s target of up to 250,000 children.

But the report warns: “The NTP schemes may not reach the most disadvantaged children. Although aimed at disadvantaged children, the DFE has not specified what proportion of children accessing the scheme should be disadvantaged.

“Of the 125,200 children allocated a tutoring place, 41,100 had started to receive tuition, of whom 44 per cent were eligible for Pupil Premium. This raises questions over the extent to which the scheme will reach the most disadvantaged children.”

Elsewhere, the NAO warns that demand for the academic mentors scheme for disadvantaged schools, another strand of the NTP, has outstripped supply.

It states: “At January 2021, Teach First had received requests for mentors from 1,789 eligible schools. By February 2021, it had placed mentors in 1,100 schools, meaning more than 600 schools that requested a mentor had not received one.”

The NAO is now urging the DfE to “track the longer-term impact of Covid-19 disruption on all pupils' development and attainment, focusing particularly on vulnerable and disadvantaged children”.

It continues: “This should include assessing the catch-up programme and acting quickly to ensure it is achieving value for money, and the NTP schemes are reaching disadvantaged children as intended.”

Gareth Davies, the head of the NAO, added: “The evidence shows that children's learning and development has been held back by the disruption to normal schooling. It is crucial that the DfE monitors the impact of its catch-up arrangements, particularly on disadvantaged children, and acts on the results."

Looking back: Chaotic guidance, laptops, Covid-costs

When considering the past 12 months, the NAO finds that the government’s response regarding education was similar to that of many other countries in that it was not prepared for such large-scale disruption.

The report provides a summary of the DfE’s actions during the last 12 months, highlighting areas where things could have been done better or more quickly.

Its key finding is that the DfE “could have set clear expectations for in-school and remote learning earlier and addressed the barriers that disadvantaged children faced more effectively”.

It adds: “The DfE has not yet systematically evaluated its response to the early stages of the pandemic to identify lessons for potential future disruption to schooling.”

Among its critical findings, the report says that “the timeliness and volume of the DfE’s guidance caused difficulties for schools”. It estimates that in March and April, more than 150 new documents and updates were published.

The report finds: “Guidance was often published at the end of the week or late in the evening, putting schools under pressure, especially when guidance was for immediate implementation.”

The report covers the well-established problems for deprived families who lacked the resources to access remote learning provision.

It states: “The barriers to effective home learning include having no quiet space to work, shortage of IT equipment and a lack of motivation. Children from disadvantaged families had less access to study space and IT equipment, and the activities they did were less likely to benefit their educational attainment.

“Children from higher-income families spent around 30 per cent more time on remote learning than children from lower-income families.”

The NAO says that during 2020 the DfE delivered more equipment via its free laptops and routers scheme than was achieved in other European nations. However, it points out that it took until June for the bulk of the first wave of free laptops to be delivered to schools.

The scheme continued to be beset by problems and has still not provided enough devices to cover the Ofcom-estimated 1.78 million children who do not have access to a laptop or computer at home (this figure does not take into account those without sole access to a device).

This week, almost a year on since the first national lockdown, the DfE reported that 1,267,451 devices of the 1.3 million allocated have been sent out.

The DfE is praised by the NAO for funding the Oak National Academy online resource, which saw 220,000 users a day during the summer term 2020 and has proven popular ever since.

However, the reluctance of the DfE to refund schools’ Covid-related costs is spelt out in the report. As of January, £133m of the £181m claimed by schools for exceptional Covid costs during March to July 2020 is to be paid – just 73 per cent.

Schools have repeatedly urged the DfE to offer more financial support to help them cope with on-going costs this academic year but nothing has, as yet, been forthcoming.

Response from the profession

The Association of School and College Leaders is scathing in its response to the NAO report.

General secretary Geoff Barton acknowledged that any government would have struggled given the challenge of Covid. However, he added: “But, even in the most charitable light, it has made far too many missteps – last summer's grading fiasco, a sluggish response to the need for laptops, and tone-deaf decisions over free school meals which then had to be reversed – to name a few.

"The nadir came shortly before Christmas when the government threatened schools with legal action if they switched to remote learning a few days before the end of term to avoid families having to self-isolate over Christmas.

"Throughout the pandemic, schools, colleges and staff have done everything asked of them and more. It has been a monumental effort – but it hasn't been supported well by the government, and schools and colleges deserved better.”

The National Education Union said it was “understandable” that there was no “off-the-shelf” plan, but added that the government has caused “a great deal of unnecessary confusion and upset”.

General secretary Kevin Courtney said the government “dithered and delayed” as it prioritised “good press over good practice”.

He added: “The most damaging aspect was its state of denial over the need for a plan B even before the second lockdown loomed, not to mention the third. Nearly a year on, the government limps to the finishing line with its laptops scheme – but this should have been resolved last summer. It is shameful that it continued for so long, leaving children who qualified for the scheme without the support they desperately needed.

"The government failed to listen to the profession time and time again and must now own its mistakes.”

Mr Barton added: "We remain determined to work constructively with the government on an education recovery programme and we are looking to the future rather than what has happened in the past. We are encouraged by the fact that the government appears to recognise that education recovery needs to be about supporting schools and colleges to do the detailed work of providing tailored evidence-based support rather than about big eye-catching policy flourishes.”

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