The Department for Education had “no plan” and was “unprepared” for the coronavirus pandemic which caused “damage” to children, MPs have said.
The Commons Public Accounts Committee (PAC) said the Department for Education (DfE) seems “surprisingly resistant” to the idea of conducting a lessons-learned exercise on its early response to the pandemic.
When schools were closed to most pupils, the DfE “set no standards for in-school or remote learning during the rest of the school year”, meaning “children had very unequal experiences”, the report said.
Committee chairwoman Meg Hillier said the department’s apparent lack of interest in learning from the past shows “little determination” to ensure its catch-up offer is “sufficient” to undo the damage caused by the pandemic.
The PAC report also highlighted evidence that the targeted elements of the Government’s £1.7 billion catch-up programme to make up for lost learning may not be reaching the most disadvantaged pupils.
The DfE has “worthy aspirations but little specific detail” about how it will “build the school system back better” – including how it will secure best value from the £400 million it has spent on IT equipment to support learning, it said.
School closures had a “particularly detrimental impact” on children with special education needs and disabilities (Send), as well as disadvantaged pupils who struggled with remote learning, the report said.
The proportion of vulnerable children who attended school or college remained below 11% until late May 2020 – despite the fact they were allowed to attend in-person teaching – and only reached a weekly average of 26% by the end of the summer term.
Referrals to children’s social care services remain around 10% lower year-on-year, increasing the risk of “hidden harm” to children, the MPs warned.
Labour MP Ms Hillier said: “The pandemic has further exposed a very ugly truth about the children living in poverty and disadvantage who have been hit particularly hard during the pandemic.
“Online learning was inaccessible to many children even in later lockdowns and there is no commitment to ongoing additional funding for IT. Schools will be expected to fund laptops out of their existing, and already squeezed, budgets.
“The committee was concerned that DfE appears uninterested in learning lessons from earlier in the pandemic, preferring to wait until the public inquiry which won’t report for years.
“It shows little energy and determination to ensure that its catch-up offer is sufficient to undo the damage of the past 14 months.”
The Government’s National Tutoring Programme (NTP) – which is part of the £1.7 billion catch-up scheme in England – is offering schools subsidised one-to-one and small-group tuition from an approved list of organisations.
But the report highlighted that, as of February, only 44% of children receiving tuition were from the poorest families, which raised questions over whether the scheme will reach pupils who need it most.
On the DfE’s response to Covid-19, the report said: “Despite being involved in a 2016 cross-government exercise on dealing with an influenza pandemic, the DfE had no plan for handling disruption of this kind and was unprepared for dealing with the challenges the pandemic presented in early 2020.
“Consequently, it struggled to react to events in a timely and effective way.
“The department has still not properly assessed its early response in order to learn lessons for the future.”
Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL), said: “It’s very worrying to hear the conclusion that the DfE ‘seems surprisingly resistant’ to conducting a full review of its response.
“This would obviously be a very useful and instructive exercise, and ensure that it is much better prepared to face such challenges in the future.”
Paul Whiteman, general secretary of school leaders’ union NAHT, said: “Throughout the pandemic, the DfE has been playing catch-up. The individual efforts of schools have almost always been quicker and better than anything centrally managed from Whitehall.
“The list of failures is extensive. While the Government has been deliberating, school staff have already been quietly, but determinedly, getting on with the crucial task of supporting pupils.”
A Department for Education spokesperson said: “Throughout the pandemic we have acted swiftly at every turn to help minimise the impact on pupils’ education and provide extensive support for schools, colleges and early years settings.
“The department has updated and strengthened its remote education expectations as best practice has developed and schools’ capabilities have increased.
“We have invested over £2 billion into schemes to provide pupils with devices for remote education and ambitious catch-up plans with funding targeted at disadvantaged children and young people who need support the most.”