Vulnerable pupils could fall behind by 36% in education

vulnerable pupils, remote learning
© Oleksiy Boyko

The National Audit Office (NAO) released a report on the UK Government handling of primary and secondary remote learning during COVID-19 – they suggest the Government assess long-term impact on vulnerable pupils or risk an irreversible divide

The NAO report released today (17 March) examines how the UK Government responded to the COVID-19 crisis in schools, at both primary and secondary level.

In Colombia, apps are being used to fight against decades of education inequality. And in New Zealand, free menstrual products are being given to decrease the impact of poverty on access to education.

When it comes to education, the social distancing measures of the pandemic forced UK-based pupils to migrate to remote learning. In the UK, primary and secondary students have never faced this kind of working dynamic – nor have their teachers, who reactively built an unprecedented framework for continued education.

98% of teachers believe students are behind

Unsurprisingly, 98% of teachers in July 2020 said that they believed their students were behind where they would expect them to be. This quick erosion of children’s development led to calls for the Government to step in and provide meaningful interventions.

This erosion exists despite the opening of schools to vulnerable and key worker children.

Despite the increased prevalence of domestic violence, there was no increase in referrals. Going the other way, there was a 15% decrease in the number of referrals to children’s social care services – compared with the average for the same period over the previous three years.

The Education Endowment Foundation estimates that school closures over 2020 could create an increased gap between vulnerable pupils and their peers by roughly 36%.

an increased gap between vulnerable pupils and their peers by roughly 36%.

This number makes all the difference for how some lives turn out. Some children are in homes that have the draining burden of domestic violence, or they experience a digital divide in access to technology.

What have the Government done to decrease this gap?

In June 2020, the UK Government announced a £1 billion programme to help children and young people catch up on development that was lost during the period of remote learning. The programme consists of a £650 million universal catch-up premium allocated to schools on a per-pupil basis, and a £350 million National Tutoring Programme targeted at vulnerable pupils.

In February 2021, the Department set out a further £700 million of funding.

Will it work?

According to this report, The National Tutoring Programme scheme is at risk of missing the most vulnerable pupils. Right now, the scheme aims to get to the most vulnerable pupils but there are no specific requirements for how many children accessing the scheme should be vulnerable or disadvantaged.

In February 2021, 44% of the 41,100 children who started the tuition scheme could also access pupil premium. Pupil premium is a grant given to public schools that aims to increase educational engagement of disadvantaged pupils.

Currently, there are 600 schools still waiting for a mentor.

The demand for The National Tutoring Programme is higher than the available supply, with mentors placed in 1,100 schools already and 689 schools waiting for theirs.

What should the Department for Education do next?

The NAO points out that there are currently no plans to dissect the long-term impact of COVID on vulnerable pupils’ lives.

They suggest that the Government assemble a plan for how to assess this impact, then to use that information to make more meaningful interventions in the newly recognised trajectories of the generation impacted by COVID-19. The report emphasises that value for money needs to be kept in mind, and that all strategies need to be engaging students who are most vulnerable to permanently losing out on their education.


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