Rarely can a huge policy agenda have slipped so far so fast. Almost nobody in government wants to discuss catch-up, and most would rather the issue faded into distant memory
There was a time, very recently in fact, when post-pandemic educational catch-up was front page news.
Less than a year ago we were told time and again by ministers – right up to Prime Minister Boris Johnson – that making sure no young person was left behind because of learning lost due to lockdown would be the next supreme national effort. No longer. Rarely can a huge policy agenda have slipped so far so fast. Now, almost nobody in government wants to discuss catch-up, and most would rather the issue faded into distant memory.
Speaking in February last year, upon the appointment of his new catch-up tzar, Sir Kevan Collins, Boris Johnson said this: “I am absolutely determined that no child will be left behind as a result of the pandemic […] Our top priority is to get schools open again and once they are, we will make sure that teachers and students are equipped with the resources and the time they need to make up for lost learning.
“I am delighted that Sir Kevan has been appointed to lead this vital work – his experience and expertise will help ensure every young person is supported to catch up on their education and gain the skills and knowledge they need to be able to seize opportunities in future.”
You probably won’t need telling what happened next. Sir Keven prepared a plan, costed it, was told it wasn’t going to be adopted, and promptly resigned. This was a narrative arc – from an abundance of prime ministerial enthusiasm to the Treasury deciding there was no money left – that took just four months to unfurl.
Despite this, we were told, almost by way of compensation, that the government would still invest heavily (to the tune of £200m) in tutoring to help those children who had most fallen behind because of Covid. Research has shown time and again that one-on-one and small group tutoring is the most effective way to help children who have fallen behind to catch up with their peers. At least there was this.
But in the last couple of weeks we have now found out that this too risks becoming another (to be charitable) damp squib. The National Tutoring Programme is badly underperforming and only reaching a tiny fraction of the children who it is supposed to be helping. Just 52,000 courses have so far been started, 10 per cent of the 524,000 target set out by ministers.
Early this week I witnessed these shortcomings first hand when I spoke to a group of normal primary parents in the West Midlands. None had heard of educational catch-up, and in none of their cases had their teachers spoken to them about the possible lost learning their children might have experienced when the schools were closed. None had any idea about the National Tutoring Programme either.
It was as if the effect of the two lockdowns on education were now just a distant memory that was probably best forgotten.
The sad truth is that most people – possibly including ministers – might rather not talk about it anymore, but the consequences will be felt by this generation of students for years to come. Essentially, their life chances will be forever set back unless catch-up is brought back to life.
Evidence shows that this damage is particularly pronounced for those from the poorest homes – with the consequences for social mobility huge. For example, according to the Education Endowment Foundation, the first lockdown alone was likely to reverse a whole decade of closing the gap between the poorest and richest young people. And according to the Sutton Trust, the projected loss in earnings over a 20 year period due to missed learning is £3,830 per year for young men from low socio-economic backgrounds, and just £1,150 for those from high socio-economic backgrounds.
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It is not too late to do something about it. There are ways of fixing the National Tutoring Programme. Education secretary Nadhim Zahawi, who is making it his business to be a breath of fresh air compared to his predecessor Gavin Williamson, could try to reinject some life into catch-up – it could play to his delivery strengths in the same way the vaccine roll-out did. Bit that will take money.
Put simply, educational catch-up is a social justice issue. The government and the wider country cannot be allowed to let it drift away. We might collectively desperately want Covid to become a thing of the past – but dealing with the educational consequences must be a priority of the here and now – or we will all live to regret it.
Ed Dorrell is a director at Public First