Prospects for a generation of children could be damaged without faster action from the Department for Education, MPs have warned.
The Public Accounts Committee said the DfE’s estimate that it may take a decade for the gap in attainment between disadvantaged pupils and others to return to what it was before the Covid-19 pandemic is “alarming” and will have “immeasurable” consequences without more rapid progress.
It has called on the DfE to publish a plan setting out how it will reduce the disadvantage gap as quickly as possible, including tackling absence rates, increasing uptake of tuition and ensuring schools have enough funding.
Dame Meg Hillier, PAC’s chair, warned that, without swift action, “the slow-motion catastrophe of the pandemic for children’s education, and in particular for disadvantaged children, will continue to have far-reaching consequences for an entire generation”.
“The DfE does not seem to appreciate the pressures schools are under as they seek to help pupils catch up amid funding constraints, challenges in recruitment and retention for staff and growing mental health needs for pupils,” she added.
“It is therefore essential that government reckons with the reality of the situation and publishes focused plans on reducing the disadvantage gap and absence rates. It must also bolster uptake of tuition, an essential programme at risk of withering on the vine as subsidies are sharply reduced.
“The consequences of a lost decade in progress narrowing the gap in attainment for disadvantaged children are immeasurable.”
Disadvantaged pupils have, on average, lower attainment than other pupils, and results from Key Stage 1, 2 and 4 tests taken in 2022 show that this gap had grown since the start of the pandemic, reversing the progress that had been made to narrow the gap since 2012.
For example, the disadvantage gap index – which measures the difference in attainment at the end of primary school – was 3.23 in 2022, compared with 2.90 in 2018.
Effective recovery relies on pupils being at school but absence is higher than it was before the pandemic, particularly among disadvantaged pupils.
In the autumn and spring terms of 2021-22, the average absence rate for all pupils was 7.4%, compared with 4.5% for the same terms before the pandemic in 2018-19. For disadvantaged pupils, the rate was 10.4% in 2021-22 compared with 7.2% in 2018-19.
The department has said every element of its recovery programme has been tilted towards disadvantage, and it hopes to see the disadvantage gap narrowing again from summer 2023. But it still expects it may take 10 years to return the disadvantage gap to the level it was before the pandemic.
In its report, the committee called on the DfE to develop a better understanding of why disadvantaged pupils have higher rates of absence than others and take targeted action to reduce absence rates among disadvantaged schoolchildren.
The DfE recently expanded its Attendance Hubs programme, which aims to support schools to improve their attendance by sharing effective practice and practical resources.
It has also expanded its Attendance Mentors programme, delivered by children’s charity Barnardo’s, which will see trained mentors work directly with 1,665 persistently and severely absent children and their families in areas in the country with the lowest attendance levels. It will seek to understand and overcome their barriers to attendance and support them back into school.
DfE ‘must improve’ tutoring programme participation
The committee also raised concern about the National Tutoring Programme. One of the key planks of the government’s education recovery plans, one in eight schools did not take up the opportunity for subsidised tutoring in 2021-22.
The DfE described this as the “biggest disappointment” of the recovery programme and PAC said the department must do more to understand and improve the results.
The committee also warned that schools are struggling to afford to provide tutoring as subsidy rates drop.
DfE is reducing its subsidy for tutoring under the National Tutoring Programme each year – so far it has dropped from 75% in 2020-21 to 60% in 2022-23 – with schools having to fund the rest through other sources, such as pupil premium funding. The department had planned to reduce this to 25% in 2023-24 but announced last month it will instead provide a 50% subsidy for the upcoming school year.
PAC warned that schools budgets are “already under significant pressure” and, without extra funding, they will find it difficult to maintain tutoring on a comparable scale to current levels.
MPs also warned of the impact of delays to the department’s special educational needs and disabilities improvement plan, which it said was published in March after “much pushing”.
The report questioned why the timetable for delivering a new set of SEND national standards “stretches beyond 2025 while the children affected continue to make their way through the school system” and asked the department to “get on with the necessary improvements as quickly as possible”. It also called for DfE to make clearer the respective responsibilities and accountabilities of the education and health systems.
PAC also called for the department to provide more regular updates on progress towards the ambitions set out in the 2022 Schools white paper that: by 2030, 90% of primary school children would achieve the expected standard in reading, writing and maths, and the percentage of children meeting the expected standard in the worst performing areas would have increased by a third.
The DfE plans to make public, later this year, its plans for tracking progress made by primary school pupils.
The department has pointed to its Outcome Delivery Plan as the means by which it publishes the performance metrics that measure progress. But the report pointed out that the most recent ODP dates back to July 2021, nearly two years ago.
A DfE spokesperson said: “We are conscious of the effect the pandemic has had on pupils’ education which is why we have made £5 billion available for education recovery.
“Despite the effect of the pandemic, England came fourth out of 43 countries that tested children of the same age in the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study international survey of the reading ability of 9 and 10 year olds.
“We remain committed to addressing the attainment gap which is why the National Tutoring Programme is targeted at the most disadvantaged students and has had over three million course starts to date, backed by more than £1 billion investment.”