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Helping pupils in England catch up on lost learning will cost £13.5bn – report

·3-min read
<span>Photograph: Graeme Robertson/The Guardian</span>
Photograph: Graeme Robertson/The Guardian

The government will need to spend £13.5bn in England to plug gaps in pupils’ learning caused by disruption to their education over the pandemic, according to research.

The report also warns that the government’s forthcoming long-term education recovery plan will need “significant investment” more than three years beyond the existing £1.7bn in short-term catch-up funding if the government is to deliver on the prime minister’s promise that “no child is left behind”.

David Laws, executive chairman of the Education Policy Institute (EPI), which published the paper, said: “Over the last year, children have fallen badly behind in their learning, and those who are disadvantaged have suffered most acutely.

“We have seen the worst disruption to education in our country since the second world war.

“If the pandemic is not to scar this generation of young people, the prime minister needs to put in place an ambitious education recovery plan, based on sound evidence and sufficient funding.”

Related: Drive for more student diversity paying off, says Oxford University

The report recommended that the recovery plan include extended school hours for social and academic activities, additional pupil premium funding, summer wellbeing programmes, incentives for teachers to work in “challenging areas”, mental health support in schools and an option for pupils to retake the year.

This should be underpinned by greater investment in tackling child poverty and children’s mental health services, the authors added.

The EPI suggested that the immediate focus should be on catching up on lost learning, since in autumn 2020 schools with high rates of free school meal eligibility had lost 2.2 months relative to schools with low rates, which lost 1.5 months.

But it recommended that these changes be maintained to address the existing 18-month learning gap between the most disadvantaged students and their more privileged peers.

Related: Schools tsar says England’s £1.7bn Covid catch-up package not enough

A separate report warned that universities are failing to recruit students from low-income backgrounds because the measures they use to identify them are “biased”, with black, Asian and minority ethnic young people especially discriminated against.

Almost half (48%) of students who are categorised as economically disadvantaged for university admissions are not from low-income families, according to the research, because the postcode-based “participation of local areas” (Polar) data used is not designed to directly identify deprivation.

As a result, privileged young people are wrongly benefiting from the lower offers that universities target at disadvantaged pupils to reflect the barriers they face in achieving top grades.

Peter Lampl, founder of the Sutton Trust, which published the research, said: “[Universities] miss out some who deserve support while inaccurately flagging others.

“It is of particular concern that local area indicators such as Polar are biased against some groups like young people from BAME backgrounds or those that live in rented accommodation.”

Universities commonly use Polar data in their admissions processes and to determine which schools should receive additional support to encourage their pupils to apply to university.

Polar assigns young people into one of five groups depending on the proportion of young people in their area who go on to higher education.

The researchers said this is a poor indicator of family income and child poverty relative to other measures.

It also tends to miss out disadvantaged black, Asian and minority ethnic pupils, and those who live in London, rent their home, have young mothers or a single parent since these groups are more likely to be based in urban areas, where more people tend to go to university.

Instead, the researchers recommend measuring the number of years a child has been eligible for free school meals (FSM) as the most accurate measure, since families must have an annual household income of £7,400 or below to qualify.

At present, universities do not have access to the official data held by the Department for Education and instead must rely on students to self-report their status.

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