COVID-19: Education recovery plan criticised as inadequate amid Whitehall squabbles over cost
A COVID rescue plan to help children in England catch up on lost lessons, costing £1.4 billion, is being unveiled by the government.
But plans to add half an hour to the school day, extending it from 8am to 5pm or 6pm, are reported to have been postponed after a Whitehall row over the cost.
As part of the recovery package, 17 and 18-year-old students will be given the option to repeat their final year if they have been badly affected by COVID.
The government claims children across England will be offered up to 100 million hours of free tuition to help them catch up on learning lost during the pandemic.
The plan has been drawn up by Sir Kevan Collins, appointed as the Government’s COVID catch-up tsar in April, who says at its heart are “three Ts”: extra time, teaching and tutoring.
But lengthening the school day or shortening the summer holiday is now under review as Sir Kevan battles against the Treasury for an estimated £15 billion to fund the longer hours plans, with Chancellor Rishi Sunak said to be “pushing back against them” because of the massive cost.
Writing in The Daily Telegraph, Education Secretary Gavin Williamson says: “One would imagine, intuitively, that combining this tutoring with more time in the school day would have an impact.
“But I recognise that this is a major step. That’s why I am launching a formal review of the evidence.”
The £1.4 billion includes £1 billion to support up to six million 15-hour tutoring courses for disadvantaged children, as well as expanding 16-19 tuition, targeting key subjects such as maths and English.
But funding has been denounced as inadequate by Labour, unions and education campaigners, who claim the money pledged by the government over three years is only £50 per pupil per year.
“This announcement makes a mockery of the Prime Minister’s claim that education is a priority,” said Labour’s shadow education secretary Kate Green.
“His own education recovery commissioner has all but said this plan is insufficient. Sir Kevan Collins told ministers that 10 times this level of investment was needed to help children recover.”
And the Education Policy Institute (EPI) think tank, headed by former Liberal Democrat cabinet minister David Laws, claimed the government’s package was dwarfed by other countries’ plans.
“The government’s education recovery package does not remotely match the scale of lost learning and is unlikely to be enough to support children to catch up on the many months of lost learning that most have suffered,” he said.
The EPI claims its research shows that despite pupils making some progress to recover during the Autumn term, on average they were as far behind in March this year, after closures early this year, as they were in September.
Announcing the plan, Boris Johnson said: “Young people have sacrificed so much over the last year and as we build back from the pandemic, we must make sure that no child is left behind.
“This next step in our long-term catch up plan should give parents confidence that we will do everything we can to support children who have fallen behind and that every child will have the skills and knowledge they need to fulfil their potential.”
£400 million will help give early years practitioners and 500,000 school teachers across the country training and support, and schools and colleges will be funded to give some year 13 students the option to repeat their final year.
Education Secretary Gavin Williamson added: “This is the third major package of catch-up funding in 12 months and demonstrates that we are taking a long-term, evidence-based approach to help children of all ages.
“The package will not just go a long way to boost children’s learning in the wake of the disruption caused by the pandemic but also help bring back down the attainment gap that we’ve been working to eradicate.”
And Sir Kevan Collins said: “The pandemic has caused a huge disruption to the lives of England’s children. Supporting every child to get back on track will require a sustained and comprehensive programme of support.
“The investments in teaching quality and tutoring announced today offer evidence-based support to a significant number of our children and teachers. But more will be needed to meet the scale of the challenge.”
But teaching unions, predictably, were scathing. Geoff Barton of the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL), claimed there had been a battle behind the scenes over funding between the Treasury and the Department for Education.
“This is a hugely disappointing announcement which lets down the nation’s children and schools at a time when the government needed to step up and demonstrate its commitment to education,” he said.
Paul Whiteman, general secretary of school leaders’ union the NAHT, said: “It’s a damp squib – some focus in a couple of the right areas is simply not enough.”
But he said the union was relieved to see that extending the school day had been “shelved for now”, adding: “Extending the school day in particular had the potential to negatively impact on pupils’ mental health, reduce family time and leave less time for extra-curricular activities.”
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