Covid: Frustration at ringfenced recovery funding amid March 8 fears

Written by: Pete Henshaw | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

Boris Johnson’s insistence that all students will return to school on March 8 and the ‘salami-slicing’ of the latest £702m funding for learning recovery have left school leaders and teachers anxious and frustrated in equal measure. Pete Henshaw reports


Ringfencing Recovery

There is frustration this week after the Department for Education (DfE) ringfenced much of the additional £702m being allocated to recovery support, potentially reducing its effectiveness according to school leaders.

And in true Westminster style, the £702m “announcement” included £300m that had already been announced by Boris Johnson in January.

The £702m includes £200m to expand tutoring programmes, including £83m for the National Tutoring Programme (NTP), £102m for the 16 to 19 Tuition Fund, and £18m for language development support in the early years. It will mean that much of this money will end up once again in the hands of private companies, with schools being invited to pay for subsidised tuition services.

The £702m also includes £200m for secondary schools to deliver face-to-face summer schools this year, focused on incoming year 7 pupils, the DfE suggests.

Only the final £302m will go directly to state primary and secondary schools in the form of a recovery premium. The average primary school will receive around £6,000, and the average secondary school around £22,000.

The DfE announcement states: “This (£302m) will help schools to bolster summer provision for their students, for example laying on additional clubs and activities, or for evidence-based approaches for supporting the most disadvantaged pupils from September.”

The funding comes on top of the £1bn allocated last year, of which £350m went to the NTP and other tutoring initiatives, and £650m went directly to schools.

School leaders are frustrated. The Association of School and College Leaders said the £702m should be going directly to schools.

General secretary Geoff Barton: “It is frustrating that the £702m package has been salami-sliced to such an extent that it may reduce its effectiveness. The total sum of the money should go directly to schools, colleges, and early years providers, rather than being diverted into other pots or ringfenced.

By allocating a large sum of money to the NTP and earmarking another large sum of money specifically for summer schools, there is less available to schools and colleges to use for catch-up support in general. The best way of ensuring that catch-up work is well-resourced is surely to maximise the amount of money available to providers to spend on the approaches that work best for their pupils.

“It is vital that schools are able to decide on how they use the recovery premium based on their knowledge of pupils’ needs, and we are pleased to see the recognition that they will be able to spend this additional funding for evidence-based approaches.”

Paul Whiteman, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT), added: “Summer schools will be of value for some pupils but it will be important not to overwhelm students. Recovery cannot happen in a single summer.”

It has, however, been welcomed that education secretary Gavin Williamson, in making the funding announcement this week, acknowledged that longer term support will also be needed “over the length of this Parliament”. He added: “Our education recovery commissioner, Sir Kevan Collins, will be engaging with teachers, school and college leaders and families over the coming weeks and months to develop our longer term plans.”


March 8 or bust?

As Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland set out more cautious, phased plans for full school re-opening, Boris Johnson has decided to send all pupils back to school on the same day.

The inconsistency across the UK has caused concern and anxiety among school professionals, especially given that the latest Covid statistics show that education staff have an elevated risk of contracting the virus.

The Westminster government set out its roadmap out of lockdown this week. For schools, the plan leans heavily on testing, including providing home tests for staff and secondary-age students.

School staff will be asked to take two rapid Covid tests each week at home, while all secondary and college students will take three Covid tests during the week of March 8, after which they will also be given two rapid tests per week for use at home (DfE, 2021).

However, given the feeling that this must be the last national lockdown, calls for school staff to be prioritised for the vaccine roll-out have increased.

It comes as the latest report from the Office for National Statistics shows that education staff have a higher risk than most occupations of catching the virus. The average likelihood of becoming infected across 25 occupations in the research – which covers September to early January – was 3.9 per cent. However, for education staff the infection rate stands at around 4.5 per cent (ONS, 2021).

There are also question marks as the other home nations have all chosen phased re-opening – reflecting the scientific advice. The government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) said after its 80th meeting on February 11, 2021: “There are a number of uncertainties in the modelling including the potential network implications of re-opening schools. A phased reopening would allow the effects to be assessed which would be particularly valuable if schools were one of the first things to re-open, as there will be more uncertainties in the early stages of releasing measures (e.g. around the impact of vaccines).”

In addition, the Scientific Pandemic Influenza Advisory Committee (SPI-M-O), which reports to SAGE, estimated on February 10, 2021, that the full re-opening of schools would raise the “R” rate by between 40 and 60 per cent, whereas re-opening primary schools would increase “R” by 10 per cent.

In Scotland, the youngest pupils returned this week (P1-P3), with some secondary school pupils allowed back to complete work for national qualifications. First minister Nicola Sturgeon is to set out further phased re-opening plans on March 2, but has said that there will not be any further return of pupils until at least March 15.

In Wales, first minister Mark Drakeford has pointedly said that re-opening schools to all pupils on the same day is “not safe” and that they are following scientific advice. Under-7s in Wales have gone back this week, with other primary pupils and older secondary pupils due back on March 15. Some secondary pupils will not return until after Easter.

In Northern Ireland, young children (P1 to P3) are due to return on March 8, with post-primary students studying for qualifications (years 12 to 14) due to come back from March 22. But pupils in P4-7 and years 8 to 11 in post-primary schools will not be back until after Easter.

Back in England, Mr Whiteman said that vaccinations must now become a priority for schools given the government’s intention to push ahead on March 8: “The prime minister has said that he wants the current lockdown to be the last. It is therefore incumbent upon the government to do everything in its power to ensure that schools are both protected and supported.

“Safety measures will continue to be a feature of school life for many months, so the government must meet the costs of these extra measures in full and not expect them to be paid from existing budgets.

“The government must prioritise all school staff for vaccination. Not only would vaccination help protect staff, but it should also reduce the need for further disruption to pupils’ education.”

Dr Patrick Roach, general secretary of the NASUWT, said: “Although the rollout of the vaccination programme is going well, it is hugely regrettable and frustrating that the government has continued to refuse to prioritise education staff in the vaccination programme. Vaccinating education staff would send a clear message that the government is taking seriously the concerns of the profession and demonstrating a genuine commitment to limiting the risk of further disruption to children’s education.

“Vaccinating education staff can be done now if there is the political will to do so. There is simply no excuse and no reason to not do so.”

Dr Mary Bousted, joint general secretary of the National Education Union (NEU), said: “The Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish governments are reopening their schools in a phased way as SAGE have recommended. Boris Johnson has pressed ahead with this gamble on the wider opening of schools and colleges in one swoop and ignored the advice for a phased return.”

Mr Barton added: “We are concerned that (the) decision to press ahead with a full return on March 8 may prove counterproductive and lead to more disruption.

“It is very difficult to understand why the approach in England is so different from the decisions taken in Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland for a more cautious, phased approach to full school reopening, particularly as the Covid infection rate is actually higher in England than in Scotland and Wales.

“We fear that England’s less cautious approach runs the risk of increasing the rate of infection and prolonging the damaging cycle of stop-start schooling. It is also concerning that the decision in England comes on the same day that ONS statistics suggest there is an elevated risk to education staff of contracting coronavirus, contrary to the assurances from the government over the past few months that this is not the case.”

Mr Barton said that the return of secondary pupils may well have to be staggered at any rate to allow for the logistics of mass testing. He explained: “Of immediate concern is the huge logistical challenge facing secondary schools and colleges of having to manage the mass testing of pupils for coronavirus. This requires setting up testing stations on site and having significant numbers of staff to operate them. This may mean that the return of pupils has to be staggered over a minimum of two weeks, and we expect the government to show a spirit of understanding.”

  • ONS: Coronavirus Infection Survey: characteristics of people testing positive for Covid-19 in England, 22 February 2021: http://bit.ly/3dKa6CC
  • DfE: Mass testing for secondary pupils as all schools and colleges fully reopen from 8 March, February 22, 2021: http://bit.ly/3bxPoDj
  • SAGE: Eightieth SAGE meeting on Covid-19, February 11, 2021: https://bit.ly/3shjD88
  • SPI-M-O: Consensus Statement on Covid-19, February 10, 2021: https://bit.ly/3aME5YI


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