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Disadvantaged pupils facing 'epidemic' of educational inequality

10 March 2022

Prove pandemic catch-up programme is working, MPs urge Government, or cancel multi-million pound contract with Randstad

The Government’s multi-million pound catch up programme risks failing pupils who need it the most, leaving them facing an “epidemic of educational inequality”. In its new report, MPs on the cross-party Education Select Committee find that delivery partner Randstad is clearly not delivering on its targets, and call on the Government to prove the National Tutoring Programme’s efficacy, or else terminate the contract signed with Randstad.

School closures had a significant impact on the majority of children’s learning. The report finds that on average, pupils spent just 2.5 hours learning every day, mental health problems for children rose by 60% and schools faced a ‘spaghetti junction’ of bureaucracy trying to navigate funding avenues to support the re-opening of schools and educational recovery.

Whilst the almost £5 billion of additional funding provided by the Department for Education is welcome, the report warns that it is not being spent wisely. By not providing support for those most in need, the Government risks baking in deepening inequalities between disadvantaged children and their better off peers. More work needs to be done by the Department, not just on improving young people’s educational attainment, but also to better support their mental health.

Key findings include:

Regional disparities and learning loss

  • Disadvantaged pupils could be “five, six, seven – in the worst case scenarios – eight months behind” according to their regional data.
  • By the second half of the Autumn term 2020, the average learning loss for maths for primary pupils was 5.3 months in Yorkshire and the Humber compared with 0.5 months in the South-West.
  • By March 2021, the National Tutoring Programme had reached 100% of its target numbers of schools in the South-West, 96.1% in the South-East, but just 58.8% in the North-East and 59.3% in the North-West.

Persistent & Severe Absence

  • In December, the Department for Education announced that persistent absence (missing over 10% of sessions) increased to 16.3% in secondary schools in Autumn 2020 which equates to 501,642 pupils out of 3 million secondary-aged young people.
  • The Centre for Social Justice reported that in addition to the 93,514 severely absent (missing over 50% of sessions) pupils in mainstream and special schools in Autumn 2020, there were an additional 6,000 severely absent pupils in alternative provision.
  • Schools with the most disadvantaged intake are ten times more likely to have a class-worth of severely absent pupils and over 13,000 young people in critical exam years are missing.

Randstad & the National Tutoring Programme

  • The National Tutoring Programme has so far reached just 15% of its overall target and only 10% of the target for the tuition pillars of the NTP (52,000 starts against a target of 524,000).
  • The Department for Education’s own annual report published in December 2021 rated it “critical/ very likely” that the measures to address lost learning will be insufficient. The NAO further reported that the NTP “may not reach the most disadvantaged children”.
  • On 2 March 2022, Randstad reportedly removed the requirement of reaching 65% pupil premium children from the tutoring contracts with providers.
  • Some headteachers described a “bureaucratic nightmare” in navigating the tuition hub and that there was a “lack of communication” with schools about the programme.

A mental health crisis

  • The number of children referred for mental health help in 2019-20 increased by nearly 60% compared with 2017-2018, to 538,564.
  • One in six children now suffer from a probable mental health disorder.
  • 16.7% of 11-16 year olds using social media agreed that the number of likes, comments and shares they received had an impact on their mood.


1) The Department for Education must commit to publish statistics on a half-termly basis on the number of starts under the National Tutoring Programme. This data must include regionality and have regard to disadvantage and special educational needs. If the NTP fails to meet its targets by Spring, the Department should terminate its contract with Randstad.

2) Teachers and school staff know their pupils and know what interventions are likely to bring the most benefit. The catch-up programme to date has been fragmented, and a complex bureaucratic system for applications, alongside a ‘spaghetti junction of funding’ may have hampered some schools’ ability to access some elements of the Government’s support. The funding schemes should be simplified and merged into one pot for schools to access and spend where the recovery need is greatest. Any future initiatives should direct funding to schools using existing mechanisms for identifying disadvantage such as pupil premium eligibility. Schools should then be held accountable for how they spend their catch-up funding.

3) The Department should launch a pilot scheme in the country’s most disadvantaged areas to explore facilitating extra-curricular activities such as sport, music and drama. The Government must fast track its commitments to ensuring all schools have a designated mental health lead and all pupils should undergo a mental health and wellbeing assessment to understand the scale of the mental health problem faced.

4) The Government should introduce a levy on the profits of social media companies and use the revenue derived from this to fund online harms and resilience training for pupils which could be distributed through schools.

5) The Department must take steps to address the issue of persistent and severe absence by working with schools and local authorities to set out proactive measures to encourage students back to school.

Chair of the Education Select Committee, the Rt Hon Robert Halfon MP said:

“School closures for the majority of pupils was a national disaster for children in terms of their learning loss, their mental health, a rise in their safeguarding risks and damage to their life chances. The education catch-up programme and additional £5 billion of funding provision was of course, hugely welcome. However, there is a real question as to whether it is actually working.

“Our Committee heard that it is not reaching the most disadvantaged children, there are significant regional disparities and there is a real risk of failure through Randstad as the delivery partner. Moreover, it is not reaching the hundreds of thousands of “ghost children” who have not returned to school. Given the increase in children’s mental health problems, more work needs to be done to rocket-boost support.

“The Government must ensure Randstad shapes up, or boot them out. The catch-up programme must be shown to be reaching disadvantaged pupils and this data must be published. Schools must also be given the autonomy to spend catch-up funding on what they know will be of most benefit to their pupils and there needs to be a step-change and rocket boost of mental health support to schools, including through introducing a social media levy on the profits of social media giants to help fund resilience and online harms training.

“Catch-up must be for the long-term. If the Department are to make the case to the Treasury that this programme is making a difference, it has to be proven to work. Education has to be the corner-stone to levelling-up and the Department should take every opportunity available to ensure the ladder of opportunity is extended to every child, regardless of their background or circumstances.”

Further information

Image: PA