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“Catch Up Plan” needed to prevent disadvantaged pupils falling further behind during the pandemic

Natalie Perera, Executive Director and Head of Research at the Education Policy Institute

Education Policy Institute publishes proposals for a school “Catch Up Plan” to prevent disadvantaged pupils falling further behind during the pandemic 

@EduPolicyInst has today (6 May) published a series of policy recommendations for government, Preventing the disadvantage gap from increasing during and after the Covid-19 pandemic‘ is designed to prevent a significant widening of the disadvantage gap between poor children and the rest of the pupil population. 

Without such actions, researchers warn that poorer and vulnerable children could fall further behind following the period of school closure – wiping out over a decade’s progress in closing education gaps, and undermining the government’s aspiration to “level up opportunity”.

Before the outbreak of Covid-19, EPI research found that disadvantaged children are already on average one and a half years of learning behind other pupils by the time they take their GCSEs.

With the Prime Minister expected to outline plans to reopen schools later this week, EPI is calling on the government to implement a school “Catch Up Plan” to provide critical support to those pupils whose learning has stalled during the lockdown period.

Dr Mary Bousted, Joint General Secretary of the National Education Union, said:

“These are new times with massively more numbers of families dropping under the poverty line and we are going to need new responses. A school’s job is becoming one of food supply, mental health support and keeping family relationships going, more than ever before.

“Responding to the distressing new levels of poverty needs a joined-up approach to getting proper incomes to families, rather than pretending there is a magic bullet where schools alone can counter the impact of disadvantage on learning. Closing the gap between family incomes, and ensuring every family has enough money, is the priority gap we need to fix. Child benefit should be doubled immediately.

“As schools re-integrate more students back on site over the next months the focus needs to be on healthy transitions which support engagement with learning and not on catching up to some government-mandated trajectory. We are going to need to re-engage students with their learning and that means we must give schools the scope to make learning relevant and engaging. This is the lesson from research around the world after education in other emergencies. Teachers need to be able to start from where children ‘are at’ when they return. Everybody will have gaps in their learning, and a new flexible approach to the curriculum will be inescapable.

“The NEU endorses the idea that Ofsted should freeze new inspections until 2021. Inspections weren’t fit for purpose before Covid-19 and they certainly won’t be afterwards. Suspending Ofsted would be one important stepping-stone to making sure schools can recapture time to work responsively with returning students and re-establish the positive relationships that generate inclusion and meaningful learning. Teachers tell us that the ‘Ofsted effect’ reduces their time to respond to students as individuals, and we can’t afford that during Covid. Pushing students through overloaded syllabuses just isn’t going to work after Covid.

“The EPI is right to sound a warning signal in calling for a major strategy on inclusion after Covid. We need to ‘build back better’, not rush back to normal. Before Covid, exclusion rates were soaring and during Covid, many parents of students with SEN are saying their child is happier at home. Let’s make sure we place expectations on school staff that are realistic and that we create supportive and not punitive environments for schools as we learn how to best re-engage students. Let’s share practice about how to mitigate the risks by restoring the role of local government in school evaluation and school co-operation. Let’s learn from education in emergencies. Let’s give staff the emotional supervision they need to support families facing really serious issues such as bereavement, job losses and homelessness.”

Margaret Greenwood MP, Labour’s Shadow Minister for Schools, said: 

“Labour welcomes this serious and important report from the Education Policy Institute. After 10 years of Conservative austerity, child poverty is driving educational inequality in our schools.

“The government needs to give serious consideration to recommendations in this report if these inequalities are not to widen and deepen.”

Commenting on the new policy proposals, Natalie Perera, Executive Director and Head of Research at the Education Policy Institute (EPI), said:

“EPI research shows that poorer children are already one and a half years of learning behind other students by age 16.  Without action now, there is a real risk that this gap will increase significantly over the period ahead.

“We are proposing a series of measures, including a time-limited and targeted package of extra financial support for nurseries, schools and colleges. By doubling the Pupil Premium for vulnerable children and those at a vital stage in their educational journey, government could give teachers the resources they need to implement proven interventions which can raise the attainment of disadvantaged children.”

 Rt Hon. David Laws, Executive Chairman of the Education Policy Institute (EPI), commented:

“Before the pandemic, we were already seeing progress in closing the education attainment gap grind to a halt. But the consequences of both school closure and social and economic disruption could cause disadvantaged children to fall seriously behind – scuppering the government’s plans to level up opportunity.

“International evidence suggests that where schools and colleges focus extra teaching on disadvantaged children, this can have a real impact in improving their results. That is why alongside its plan to reopen schools, the government should also set out a targeted pupil “Catch Up Plan”. A sharp rise in educational inequality is highly likely without swift and focused government action to support education providers.”

The new proposals for government to support disadvantaged pupils include: 

  • Doubling Pupil Premium funding for one year, from September 2020, for pupils entering Year 1, Year 7 and Year 11. Costing around £500m, this would provide schools with more resources for catch up classes and small group tuition for those disadvantaged pupils making crucial transitions into primary and secondary education, and those taking their GCSEs.
  • EPI also recommends doubling the disadvantage funding made available for students set to enter Year 13, who will be taking their A Levels and other Level 2 qualifications. This would cost around £242m.
  • Doubling, for one year only, the Early Years Pupil Premium (costing £31m), the Looked After Premium for children in care (£263m), and permanently extending the Looked After Premium to those on the Child Protection Register (245m).
  • Allowing schools to make their own, evidence-based judgements about how best to use this extra funding for disadvantaged pupils, including drawing on advice from the Education Endowment Foundation. Schools would be able to increase teaching resources, including by using supply teachers and tuition available from both private and charitable providers.
  • Establishing a one-year national “Teacher Volunteer Scheme”, targeted at retired and inactive teachers, who may want to give their time to help schools to make good the learning losses experienced by disadvantaged and vulnerable children.
  • Suspending Ofsted inspections of schools until at least January 2021, to allow schools to focus this year on the challenges of re-starting education while maintaining social distancing.
  • Issuing new guidance to schools to prevent a significant increase in exclusions and “off-rolling” of pupils, as schools return. The return of pupils during this period of disruption may bring fresh behavioural challenges. Exclusions and off rolling particularly impact disadvantaged and vulnerable learners.
  • Reviewing the current plans for national examinations in 2020 and 2021 to avoid the risk of adverse impacts on disadvantaged and vulnerable groups, including those with special educational needs and from certain ethnic backgrounds.
  • Supporting further education (FE) colleges and 16-19 providers with an “Education for Recovery” package including funding for lost learning time, maintenance grants for post-18 courses, and the extension of vocational courses and for adult re-skilling.
  • Funding Alternative Provision (AP) – education which sits outside of mainstream settings, usually reserved for pupils with behavioural or health issues – for post-16 students. Currently AP at this age is not funded by the government. The impact of having no specialist provision after age 16 will be particularly harmful to those children who miss on out on GCSE grades this year.
  • Ensuring access to home tutoring and therapies for some children with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND). While some pupils with SEND are currently in attendance at school, for others home support is needed because of medical conditions or because of the inability to safely socially distance in the school environment.
  • The expansion of support for vital out of school services such early intervention, mental health, children’s social services and youth services.

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