A flagship programme aimed at helping pupils catch up on learning may not be reaching the poorest children, the public spending watchdog has warned.
Fewer than half the children who had started to receive tuition by February in the scheme were eligible for grants aimed at helping disadvantaged children, the National Audit Office (NAO) found.
The programme – designed to provide disadvantaged pupils with tuition – is part of government plans to help children catch up on missed learning due to the disruption to education caused by the coronavirus pandemic.
It allows schools to access heavily subsidised tuition from a list of partners, as well as supporting those in the most disadvantaged areas to employ academic mentors to give intensive support.
Some 41,100 pupils had started to receive tuition through the scheme by last month, the NAO report found.
It found 44 per cent of these were eligible for pupil premium funding, provided to children who claim free school meals or have done in the past six years, as well as those previously or currently in care.
"This raises questions over the extent to which the scheme will reach the most disadvantaged children," the NAO report said.
The National Tutoring Programme (NTP) says on its website: “While it is expected that a majority of pupils receiving tutoring will be eligible for the pupil premium, schools will have discretion to identify the pupils most likely to benefit from support.”
The NAO report found that about 125,200 pupils had been allocated a tutoring place in the scheme by February.
A government official said last month the Department for Education (DfE) planned to sign up 250,000 pupils over the current academic year and that a “sharp increase” in numbers was expected as children returned to school in March.
Graham Archer, from the DfE, also told the education select committee that uptake had been slower in areas where tutoring was viewed as “a less normal part of academic life”, with less interest from coming from schools in northern England.
The NAO report said demand for academic mentors in disadvantaged areas had "outstripped supply" as hundreds of schools have still not received one despite requesting support.
Teach First placed mentors in 1,100 schools last month, but it had received requests for mentors from 1,789 eligible schools.
Looking back at the DfE’s handling of school and college closures during the pandemic, the NAO report concluded aspects of its response "could have been done better or more quickly, and therefore been more effective in mitigating the learning pupils lost as a result of the disruption”.
It says the DfE could have set clear expectations for in-school and remote learning earlier and "addressed the barriers that disadvantaged children faced more effectively”.
In early April, the DfE considered providing 602,000 laptops or tablets and 100,000 routers to ensure vulnerable children and those in priority year groups had access to digital devices, according to the report.
It said: "Due to the practical difficulty of supplying devices on this scale, the department decided to focus on all children with a social worker and care leavers, alongside disadvantaged pupils in year 10, a total of 220,000 laptops and tablets, and 50,000 routers."
"Substantial amounts of equipment did not reach local authorities and academy trusts until June, meaning that many children may not have been able to access remote learning until well into the second half of the summer term,” the report added.
Gareth Davies, the head of the NAO, said: "The evidence shows that children’s learning and development has been held back by the disruption to normal schooling.
"It is crucial that the department monitors the impact of its catch-up arrangements, particularly on disadvantaged children, and acts on the results."
Daisy Cooper, a Liberal Democrat MP, said: “This report shows that on education, the government was too late to respond and then didn’t do enough.”
In June last year, Boris Johnson announced a £1bn plan to help pupils in England make up lost learning time following months of school closures.
He said £350m would be spent on the NTP over the current academic year to help the most disadvantaged pupils, while an additional £650m would be shared across schools to help children from all backgrounds who have missed lessons.
Last month, an extra £300m of new money was announced for tutoring in early years settings, schools and colleges to help children catch up.
Experts have warned emphasis on the need to catch-up on lost learning is putting children under “huge” pressure.
A DfE spokesperson said: “This pandemic has caused unprecedented disruption to all areas of life, but 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.”
"Schools have been open to vulnerable pupils throughout the pandemic, and getting all children back into the classroom, as they are now, has been the department’s number one priority during the periods of national lockdown.”
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."
Additional reporting by agencies
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