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“No Covid plan” Department for Education “surprisingly resistant” to lessons-learned exercise amid concerns over catchup offer and scale of “hidden harm”

26 May 2021

In its report published today, the Public Accounts Committee says that despite being involved in a 2016 cross-government exercise on dealing with a pandemic, the Department for Education (DfE) had ‘no plan’ and was ‘unprepared’ for the challenges of Covid-19.

When schools were closed to most pupils in early 2020 the “DfE set no standards for in-school or remote learning during the rest of the school year” meaning “children had very unequal experiences”. DfE has still not properly assessed its early response in order to learn lessons for the future.

The disruption to schooling had particularly damaging effects on children who were already facing adversity. Although they could continue attending, the proportion of vulnerable children who attended school or college remained below 11% until late May 2020, and only ever reached an average 26%, by the end of the summer term. Referrals to children’s social care services fell by 15% and remain 10% lower year-on-year – raising concerns about ongoing ‘hidden harm’ to children. 

Children with special educational needs and disabilities found remote learning especially difficult, and some lost access to specialist support and equipment, increasing risks to their health and welfare. Disadvantaged children also faced major barriers to effective home learning, widening the gap between them and their peers.

There is already evidence that the targeted elements of DfE’s catch-up programme to make up for lost learning may not be reaching the most disadvantaged children. The Department has “worthy aspirations but little specific detail” about how it will “build the school system back better”, including how it will secure value for money from the £400 million it’s spent on IT equipment, and the £1.7 billion it has committed to the catch-up programme.

Meg Hillier MP, Chair of the Public Accounts Committee, said:

“The pandemic has further exposed a very ugly truth about the children living in poverty and disadvantage who have been hit particularly hard during the pandemic. On-line learning was inaccessible to many children even in later lockdowns and there is no commitment to ongoing additional funding for IT. Schools will be expected to fund laptops out of their existing, and already squeezed, budgets.

The committee was concerned that DfE appears uninterested in learning lessons from earlier in the pandemic, preferring to wait until the public enquiry which won’t report for years. It shows little energy and determination to ensure that its ‘catch-up’ offer is sufficient to undo the damage of the past 14 months.”

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Image: PA