The Public Accounts Committee (PAC) said that children had “very unequal experiences” during the end of the last academic year, as it explored the DfE’s response to Covid-19 in England’s first lockdown.
The first changes to education were announced last spring as Covid-19 started to take hold of the country, with most pupils told to stay at home and GCSE and A-level exams scrapped for the first time.
In a new report published on Wednesday, the PAC said the pandemic “caused unprecedented disruption to our school system”.
The cross-party group of MPs said the DfE “had no plan for handling disruption of this kind and was unprepared for dealing with the challenges the pandemic presented in early 2020”, which meant it “struggled to react to events in a timely and effective way”.
This was despite the department being involved in a cross-government exercise in 2016 on dealing with a flu pandemic, the PAC said.
The report said the DfE “set no standards for in-school or remote learning” for the rest of the school year after all pupils – except vulnerable pupils and children of key workers – stopped going into school last spring, meaning children “had very unequal experiences”.
The PAC said the department seemed “surprisingly resistant” to the idea of conducting a lessons-learned exercise on its early response to the pandemic.
The DfE said it had “learnt lessons organically” and wanted to wait to consider lessons alongside other departments, according to the report.
“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,” the MPs said.
“Disadvantaged children also faced major barriers to effective home learning, which will have exacerbated the gap in attainment between them and their peers.”
Laptops were initially handed out, during the summer term of last year, to children with a social worker, to care leavers, and to disadvantaged year 10 pupils.
But at the start of this academic year, the government began to hand out laptops to many more disadvantaged children otherwise unable to access remote education, with more than 1.3 million devices delivered to schools as of this month.
In response to the report, Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said the rollout of laptops was “painfully slow” and that the 1.3 million target was hit “two months after most children returned to school at the beginning of March”.
The PAC said an education union and a children’s charity told their committee that the “limited scope” of the government’s provision of laptops to pupils last spring and summer – when on-site attendance was restricted – meant “many children did not have the devices or internet access they needed”.
“The department told us that it had been up against global supply constraints, meaning that it had not been able to distribute equipment as quickly as it had wanted,” it added.
Labour MP Meg Hillier, the PAC’s chair, 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.
“Online 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.”
Ms Hillier added: “The committee was concerned that DfE appears uninterested in learning lessons from earlier in the pandemic, preferring to wait until the public inquiry, which won’t report for years.”
Mr Barton said: “School and college leaders have been at the coalface throughout the pandemic and know better than anyone else where the DfE’s failings lie.
“Leaders had to set up remote learning from scratch in an incredibly short timeframe, without any guidance from the DfE and without enough laptops for their pupils who didn’t have them.”
He added: “It’s very worrying to hear the conclusion that the DfE ‘seems surprisingly resistant’ to conducting a full review of its response.”
A DfE spokesperson said: “Throughout the pandemic we have acted swiftly at every turn to help minimise the impact on pupils’ education and provide extensive support for schools, colleges and early years settings.
“The Department has updated and strengthened its remote education expectations as best practice has developed and schools’ capabilities have increased.”
They added: “We have invested over £2bn into schemes to provide pupils with devices for remote education and ambitious catch-up plans – with funding targeted at disadvantaged children and young people who need support the most.”
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