Learning loss for disadvantaged pupils has been consistently greater than for pupils overall

A new report has revealed that disadvantaged pupils remain further behind the expected level of attainment than other pupils as children make progress to recover the learning they lost during the coronavirus pandemic. 

The National Audit Office’s (NAO) newest report ‘Education recovery in schools in England’ shows variation in how far and how quickly pupils have recovered learning.

In summer 2021, pupils were on average 2.2, 0.9 and 1.2 months behind the expected level of attainment in maths, primary reading and secondary reading respectively.

This compared with 3.6, 1.8 and 1.5 months in autumn 2020.

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. 

Learning loss is estimated by comparing what pupils did achieve with what they would have achieved had they progressed at the same rate as pupils in the most recent comparable pre-pandemic period.

The disadvantage gap index (a measure of the difference in attainment between disadvantaged and other pupils) at the end of primary school was 3.23 in 2022, compared with 2.91 in 2019. 

Left unaddressed, lost learning may lead to increased disadvantage and significant missed future earnings for those affected.

Disruption to schooling during the COVID pandemic led to lost learning for many pupils, particularly disadvantaged children. 

The NAO said the Department for Education’s (DfE) response was to implement a £3.5 billion package of measures, extending across four academic years (2020/21 to 2023/24), to support education recovery in schools.

The main interventions were: 

– The National Tutoring Programme (NTP)

– Extra direct funding for schools in the form of the catch-up premium (a per-pupil funding allocation for all schools) in 2020/21 and the recovery premium (an allocation which for primary and secondary schools is based on the number of disadvantaged pupils they have) in subsequent years.

DfE appointed the Education Endowment Foundation and Teach First to run the tuition partners and academic mentors schemes respectively.

For 2021/22, DfE appointed a single contractor, Randstad, to manage both schemes. 

In September 2021, DfE introduced a school-led tutoring scheme to the NTP, in response to feedback from schools that logistical factors (such as the amount of management time needed) were deterring them from engaging with the existing tutoring schemes. 

For 2022/23, DfE decided not to extend its contract with Randstad and to allocate all NTP funding directly to schools.

By the end of 2021/22, pupils had started 2.5 million courses under the NTP.

Take-up of the NTP tuition partners and academic mentors schemes in 2021/22 was lower than DfE expected, but school-led tutoring made up the shortfall. 

In 2021/22, the number of courses started was 45% of DfE’s target for tuition partners and 65% for academic mentors. 

School-led tutoring proved more popular with schools than the other schemes and accounted for 81% of all the tuition courses started in 2021/22. 

More than 1.3 million pupils (one in five) received school-led tutoring. Overall, 87% of schools took part in some form of tutoring in 2021/22.

NAO said the DfE focused the NTP on disadvantaged children, although schools were free to choose which pupils would benefit most from support. In 2021/22, around half of the pupils receiving tutoring under the NTP were disadvantaged. 

The proportion was 51% for the tuition partners scheme, short of DfE’s target of 65% for that scheme, and 47% for school-led tutoring.

DfE gave schools freedom to decide how to use the catch-up and recovery premiums and has not routinely collected information on how this funding was used. 

It requires schools to publish a statement each year explaining how they plan to spend the recovery premium and demonstrating that their approach is informed by evidence on what will help pupils catch up on lost learning.

NAO has recommended in its report that DfE should further develop its approach to monitoring progress towards achieving its ambitions for pupils’ attainment, and report regularly on progress. 

The company added that DfE should also 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.

Gareth Davies, head of the National Audit Office, said: “The Department for Education needed to take action to support pupils to make up the learning they lost during the COVID-19 pandemic and reach children who had been disproportionately affected by the disruption to schooling.

“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 department 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.”

Paul Whiteman, general secretary at school leaders’ union NAHT, responded to the report. 

Mr Whiteman said: “Schools have been working incredibly hard to mitigate the impact of the pandemic on pupils, but government support has been piecemeal and insufficient, and its own recovery tsar resigned when ministers failed to back his plans with the funding needed.

“Given the financial squeeze schools are facing, recovery efforts could be undermined further when the tutoring programme subsidy ends, and the National Audit Office is right to question this.”

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