News & Insights 26 March 2021

Balancing learning and health through the crisis – the Government response so far

This month marked a year since schools were first closed to fight Covid-19 infections. Since then, there’s been a constant debate over how best to balance public health and the long-term impacts of restricting classroom learning. We’ve summarised for you the government response so far to the impact of the pandemic on education.

Closing schools: The last resort

School provides a safe, structured space for children and young people to learn and develop. Not all children can access learning as effectively at home. Weighing up the risk to public health with the risk to children’s wellbeing and future opportunities has been an ongoing challenge for politicians.

Schools in the UK closed from March to September 2020, resulting in up to 14 weeks of lost classroom learning for pupils. During this time, 71% of schools in England remained open to vulnerable children and those of key workers who weren’t at home to supervise learning, compared to 34% in Wales, 30% in Northern Ireland and just 24% in Scotland. Learning time fell significantly for pupils while schools were closed; the Institute for Fiscal Studies has found that pupils did not settle into remote learning during the first lockdown. As schools began to reopen, worries around sending pupils back to classrooms meant that inequalities worsened.

Education Secretary Gavin Williamson called closing schools a “last resort” for suppressing the rate of infection, given the detrimental impact on pupils. However, in January 2021, the Government changed its plan and announced that schools would close in the third nationwide lockdown. A surge in pupils attending in person then led the Government to issue more guidance and encourage key-worker parents to keep their children at home if they could, to relieve pressure on schools.

On 22nd February, the Prime Minister announced that English schools would reopen from 8th March. Although there would be no phased return for the different age groups (a decision criticised by education unions) schools were encouraged to consider staggering the daily timetable to reduce the risk of infection and secondary pupils had to undergo testing before they could re-enter the classroom. A petition calling for school and childcare staff to be prioritised for vaccination exceeded 500,000 signatures and was debated by parliament in January. However, the Government chose not to revise the priority groups to include teachers.

Improving access to remote learning

Once pupils were sent home, the gap in access to technology posed a big challenge. School communities weren’t ready for the sudden switch to remote learning and pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds were more likely to miss out.

Access to devices and stable internet connection has varied greatly throughout the pandemic, with pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds more likely to be affected. The DfE’s Get help with technology scheme was introduced to address this. In England, the Government made efforts to deliver laptops and routers by the end of June 2020 and by 7th March 2021 over 1.25 million devices had been delivered. 

Recent research by Ofsted found that many schools surveyed parents to assess gaps in tech, and then made great efforts to source equipment from within the community. Despite these efforts, many pupils still lack adequate technology to access home learning. Schools will continue to be legally required to provide remote learning to pupils that can’t attend school, even after classrooms reopened on 8th March. The pandemic has brought digital inequalities into focus and, as restrictions ease, the need to be ready for remote learning isn’t likely to disappear.

More money for schools to boost recovery

The Government recognised that schools would need more resources to cope with the impact of Covid-19 on pupils. Not all the funding has been made directly available to schools. A proportion is designated for tutoring, paid directly to quality-checked providers that schools can approach for support.

Last year, the Government announced a £1 billion catch-up fund for schools in England for the 2020-21 academic year. This was equivalent to £80 for every pupil in a mainstream school from reception to Year 11 (and more in specialist settings). While schools were offered some flexibility to decide how to use the money, it was meant to be used “for specific activities which will help pupils catch up on missed education”, with the Education Endowment Foundation publishing a guide for schools to identify the most effective approaches.

Around a third of the catch-uping fund made available for schools last year was ring-fenced for tuition. In June 2020, the Government a new National Tutoring Programme worth £350 million would be set up to help disadvantaged pupils recover from the educational disruption caused by Covid-19. Funding would be paid directly to accredited providers, to be approached by schools.

Tutoring organisations of all kinds, private and non-profit, were invited to apply to join the scheme and were subject to quality checks. Action Tutoring was officially approved as a Tuition Partner in November, and the initiative has enabled the charity to reach thousands more pupils in need of an academic boost. In January the scheme was extended until 2022, with an additional £200 million set aside, subject to future spending reviews.

As of February, the NTP had reached 70% of its target schools. However, professor of social mobility, Lee Elliot Major, recently said that the NTP would need to be scaled up considerably if it is to have the desired impact. At present, not all pupils eligible for free school meals are benefiting from tuition through the scheme and the NTP’s data suggests that access is lowest in the North East, North West, Yorkshire and the Humber. The initiative represents a huge opportunity. But more will need to be done to ensure it is available to all those that need it for the long term. 

The future of education recovery: Catch-up commissioner appointed

The impact of Covid-19 and school closures on education is deep and will be long lasting. Children and young people of all backgrounds will need additional support for years to come – support that spans academic attainment and mental and physical wellbeing. Sustained action will be needed to address the inequalities worsened by the crisis.

Numerous options have been considered in the public discussion around education catch-up, including longer school days, additional school terms, summer schools and forest schools. 

Sir Kevan Collins, former chief executive of the Education Endowment Foundation with 30 years of teaching experience, has been appointed Education Recovery Commissioner. The Commissioner will report directly to the Prime Minister and Education Secretary, and will “consult closely with parents, teachers and schools to make sure every young person has the opportunity to progress and fulfil their potential.”

Whatever plans are announced in the coming months, we hope they will address all the aspects of pupils’ learning and wellbeing that have been impacted by the pandemic. We also hope they will draw creatively on the full evidence available for what works, and that they carefully consider the demands placed on our school workforce.