How did the English government support schools during COVID-19?
At the start of 2020, the Department had no plan for managing mass disruption to schooling on the scale caused by COVID-19… and no strategy for how to respond to a pandemic affecting the whole country.
Support for children’s education during the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic, a report published by the National Audit Office (March 2021) and I quote, “to form a judgement on whether value for money has been achieved!”
The State of the Nation
To understand the state of the nation, it’s important to consider the magnitude of support required:
- There are ~21,600 state schools in England
- ~8.2 million pupils aged four to 19 are in (state school) education.
- This number rises to ~8.8 million with independent pupils.
- ~12,500 maintained schools (58%) teach 3.8 million pupils who are led by local authorities.
- The remaining 9,000 schools (42%) are academies and free schools with 4.4 million pupils, funded by the Department for Education who are independent of local authority.
- From April 2020, the Department for Education prepared COVID-19 response plans for its support for schools and vulnerable children, but it did not develop an overarching departmental plan until June
- In the early stages, the Department set no requirements for in-school and remote learning but became more directive as the pandemic progressed
- In January 2021, the Department had paid, or intended to pay, schools £133 million (73%) of the £181 million they had claimed for exceptional costs arising from COVID-19 between March and July 2020
- The timeliness and volume of the DfE’s guidance caused difficulties for schools
- Governments in other countries generally responded to the pandemic in a similar way to the Department
- Most vulnerable children did not attend school between late March and the end of the summer term 2020
- Provision for children attending school varied widely, with disadvantaged pupils having the greatest challenges
- The DfE funded a well-received national online resource to support schools and pupils with remote learning
- The DfE provided laptops… but did not deliver most of the equipment until June 2020
- A £1 billion programme was announced to help children and young people catch up on learning lost.
Reactive or Proactive?
Read into the headlines what you may. It goes without question, that the Department for Education’s response to the pandemic was largely reactive rather than proactive. At no time in the report is Ofsted mentioned until the recommendations are listed on page 13 of the report. For me, this sums up a gaping hole in how our schools should have been supported from March 2020. There are lots of details in the report worth unpicking.
We know funding can help, but placing greater trust in the teaching profession to respond, as well providing a more intelligent and adaptive accountability framework would have also enabled school and college leaders to respond to their communities.
The National Audit Office conclude, the Department for Education response to the pandemic 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.
I guess one final question is, who should be held to account for any failings?