Response to House of Commons Education Select Committee Report on Post-pandemic Education: Is the Catch-Up Programme Fit for Purpose?

14 March 2022

In light of the just-released critical report by the House of Commons Education Select Committee highlighting that the country faces an ‘epidemic of education inequality,’ it is more evident that the future of disadvantaged pupils continues to hang in the balance.

Even though school closures significantly disrupted learning for all pupils, the cross-party report found that disadvantaged pupils could be up to eight months behind their peers, pupils spent far less time learning each day, mental health problems for children rose by 60% in the last academic year and schools faced extensive bureaucracy when trying to access funding to support re-opening and educational recovery.

The report also reiterated the apparent inability of the education catch-up scheme, the National Tutoring Programme (NTP), to achieve meaningful targets amid a low level of accountability and transparency by the implementing organisation, Randstad, in its operations. It highlighted that regional implementation of the NTP has seen significant disparities in uptake across the country creating an uneven playing field with the likelihood of widening the attainment gap for schools in the North, Yorkshire and Humber, where it recorded low targets in implementation.

The findings from this report point to the risk of the NTP missing an opportunity to reverse the devastating impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on education, specifically for disadvantaged children. At Action Tutoring, we strongly recommend that the NTP keeps the core focus on supporting disadvantaged pupils to recover from the pandemic and minimise the apparent deepening inequality in education.

Action Tutoring CEO, Susannah Hardyman said, “I am deeply concerned that recent changes to the NTP structure such as removing targets for delivery to pupil premium pupils and allowing group sizes of 1:6 instead of a maximum of 1:3 are only serving to water down the NTP. This risks losing the potential the programme has to benefit less advantaged pupils in particular. The EEFs own evidence suggests that the smaller the group size, the better and we know that it is disadvantaged pupils that have been most affected by the pandemic.

Greater transparency and accountability are essential to the success of the programme. Stakeholders including Tuition Partners, schools and sector leaders must get access to half termly progress reports and a reliable channel for making enquiries or sharing feedback. Increased accountability and operational transparency will go a long way to improve the impact of the tutoring programme and build a higher level of trust in the NTP’s ability to bridge the gap between disadvantaged pupils and their peers.

Given that take-up of the programme, this year has not been as high as targeted, we strongly recommend that the Department of Education should consider not reducing the subsidy rates next academic year (currently set to go from 70% to 50%), to help increase the take-up in schools and allow more pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds to be covered by the programme. Through that, we can ensure no one is left behind.

Education Secretary Nadhim Zahawi has just announced that up to £65m will be invested into the School-Led Tutoring route of NTP, giving more schools the flexibility and support to deliver high-quality tutoring. While we recognise the important flexibility that the schools led tutoring route gives to schools, we would urge the Department for Education to ensure that the quality benefits that the Tuition Partners pillar brings to the NTP are not lost.

As a Tuition Partner and education charity, Action Tutoring is concerned about other highlights of the report including the looming mental health and wellbeing crisis among children, which has been exacerbated by the pandemic. We support the report’s recommendation for the creative engagement of pupils in extra-curricular activities and community programmes to reduce their over-reliance and time spent on social media, which has wider implications for their mental health.

Notwithstanding the devastating and prolonged impacts of COVID-19 on education inequality, we believe the NTP can be reformed to meet the daunting challenge of narrowing the attainment gap as well as recovering lost learning time for disadvantaged pupils to have a fair chance at achieving their full potential.

More important than ever, this is a pivotal moment to reimagine the best ways our education system can better support the development and well-being of disadvantaged children to create a lasting and transformative impact that will benefit us all. Given this, we hope in particular to see the NTP have a long term, lasting legacy in the UK education system.