Covid recovery: Subsidy axe threatens tutoring interventions, heads say

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

By the end of 2022, more than 1.3 million pupils had taken part in school-led Covid recovery tutoring, but these interventions are now at risk due to government cuts to tutoring subsidies, school leaders have warned.

A National Audit Office report (NAO, 2023) finds that while students are generally making progress to recover their learning following Covid-19 lockdowns, those who are disadvantaged “remain further behind” and there is still work to do to close gaps.

However, despite appetite for school-led tutoring, the Department for Education (DfE) is slowly reducing the subsidy it gives to schools to fund this work. Ultimately it wants schools to fund tutoring themselves.

But school leaders have warned that with the raft of budget pressures, including soaring inflation, energy costs, and unfunded staff pay increases, tutoring work is at risk.

The NAO – an independent body which scrutinises public spending for Parliament – is now urging the DfE to model the impact of the removal of the subsidy on recovery outcomes in schools.

Elsewhere in its report, the NAO says there is “limited evidence” on how the post-Covid catch-up and recovery premium funding for schools has been spent so far.

The report – Education recovery in schools in England – finds that learning gaps in summer 2021 closed compared to summer 2020.

For example, in reading, students were 1.8 months (primary) and 1.5 months (secondary) behind expected levels in 2020. These gaps closed to 0.9 and 1.2 months respectively in 2021.

However, the disadvantage gap is growing. In summer 2021, secondary pupils were 2.4 months behind expected reading levels. Meanwhile, after the key stage 2 SATS last year the disadvantage gap index (a measure of the difference in attainment) was 3.23 compared with 2.91 in 2019.

The report looks at the £3.5bn package of measures implemented by the Department for Education (DfE) to support recovery efforts in schools.

This includes almost £1bn for the National Tutoring Programme (NTP) since its inception, £650m for the catch-up premium for schools in 2020/21, and £302m for the recovery premium targeting disadvantaged pupils in 2021/22.

Since then a further £1bn has been allocated to the recovery premium for 2022/23 and 2023/24. There are no plans to continue this funding after 2024.

Tutoring provision under threat?

In September 2021, the NTP introduced a school-led tutoring option after logistical problems prevented many schools from engaging with the external provision offered by the scheme, not least the tuition partners route which involved accessing external providers. And from September 2022, the DfE allocated all NTP funding directly to schools.

The NAO reports that by summer 2022, 2.5 million courses under the NTP had been started by pupils, including 1.3 million via school-led tutoring programmes – far out-performing the other provider-led tutoring options. Indeed, school-led tutoring accounted for 81% of all courses begun by pupils in 2021/22.

However, the funding schools get to run this tutoring is slowly reducing. This year the DfE is covering 60% of the costs of school-led tutoring interventions. This will reduce to 25% in the next academic year.

Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said that “with school budgets already under enormous pressure, this is simply unsustainable”. He said that the partial subsidy model of the scheme is “hampering” its delivery.

His counterpart at the National Association of Head Teachers agrees: “Given the financial squeeze schools are facing, recovery efforts could be undermined further when the tutoring programme subsidy ends, and the NAO is right to question this.”

Mr Barton continued: “It was disadvantaged children that were hardest hit by the pandemic. Government support for their educational recovery has been inadequate. The extra funding has been undermined by soaring inflationary costs for schools which have put pressure on all areas of their provision.

“There must be a renewed emphasis and investment by the government in support for disadvantaged children through from early years to post-16 education.”

The NAO is also conscious of the potential impact of the subsidy withdrawal. The report states: "To continue providing this support, schools will need to fund tutoring from other sources. The DfE told us it would like to embed tutoring in the school system because it is recognised as an effective way to address low attainment. However, some of the stakeholders we consulted raised concerns about the long-term financial sustainability of tutoring and mentoring, given the pressures on school budgets.”

The report recommends: “The DfE should 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.”

One elephant in the room is just how much of the NTP provision has found its way to disadvantaged pupils.

Schools were given freedom to decide which pupils should benefit from the various tutoring options and the NAO reports that 51% of the students who received tutoring in 2021/22 via the tuition partners pathway were disadvantaged, compared to the DfE’s target of 65%. Meanwhile only 48% of those receiving support via the academic mentors pathway were disadvantaged. This figure falls to 47% for students on school-led tutoring interventions.

The DfE also gave schools freedom on how to spend the catch-up and recovery premiums. It requires simply that details are published each year as part of the Pupil Premium Strategy Statement, including evidence that approaches are being “informed by research evidence”.

As such, the NAO says that the DfE has “not routinely collected information” on how the premium funding has been used and that currently there is “limited evidence” as to “how far it was used to support disadvantaged pupils”.

It adds: “The DfE told us it plans to review a sample of the strategy statements in early 2023 to build its understanding of how schools are planning to use the money.”

The NAO also finds that by the end of the 2021/22 financial year, there was a £226m underspend against the available recovery funding – 14% of the total. The DfE is also attempting to “clawback” unspent NTP funding from schools, which could be as much as £100m. Many schools say they did not spend the money because the falling subsidy put them off tutoring options; others are disputing the amount the DfE wants to take back from them.

The NAO is now recommending that the DfE “further develop its approach to monitoring progress” towards longer term attainment targets. Specifically it recommends that the DfE uses “research and evidence, including exploring the possibility of systematic longitudinal monitoring, to assess education recovery in schools, including whether children have recovered lost learning and whether progress is being made to close the disadvantage gap”.

The NAO states: “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. Left unaddressed, lost learning may lead to increased disadvantage and significant missing future earnings for those affected.”

Gareth Davies, head of the NAO, added: “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 DfE 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.”

NAO: Education recovery in schools in England, February 2023:

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