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Education Catch-Up Programme

Volume 710: debated on Thursday 17 March 2022

Education Committee

Robert Halfon will speak for up to 10 minutes, during which no interventions may be taken. At the conclusion of his statement, I will call Members to put questions on the subject of the statement, and call Robert Halfon to respond to them in turn. May I emphasise, as I did last week, that questions should be directed to the Select Committee Chair and not to the relevant Minister? Interventions should be questions, and should be brief; they should not be long statements. Front Benchers may take part in questioning.

I call the Chair of the Education Committee, Robert Halfon.

1.42 pm

Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker, and I thank you and the Backbench Business Committee for giving me a chance to make a statement on the Committee’s new report, entitled “Is the Catch-up Programme fit for purpose?” I also thank the Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Worcester (Mr Walker). It seems a bit like groundhog day, because we have spent the last few weeks debating this subject, and we did so in the Committee just last Tuesday. I want to give a special mention to the hon. Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Kim Johnson), who is an incredibly hard-working member of the Committee, and to thank her for being here today.

Let me begin by paying tribute to all the teachers and support staff, not just in my constituency but around the country, who have done everything possible to keep children learning, and to the children and young people themselves, who have had to deal with extremely difficult circumstances. I only wish that the chair of the covid inquiry had not forgotten to mention the word “children” in the draft terms of reference; I hope that that will change.

To date, the Government have spent almost £5 billion on the catch-up programme, which I warmly welcome, but, as our report points out, more targeted efforts are needed to help our children to recover from the pandemic. The impacts of school closures were devastating for most of them. Many now face an epidemic of educational inequality, a widening attainment gap, worsening mental health, an increase in their safeguarding risks, and an adverse effect on their lifetime chances. One study found that children locked down at home spent an average of two and a half hours each day doing school work, but one fifth of pupils did no learning at home, or less than one hour each day.

Our report sets out four key findings. First, it notes that disadvantaged pupils have been the worst hit. The Education Policy Institute told us that disadvantaged pupils could be

“five, six, seven—in the worst case scenarios—eight months behind”

their most affluent peers. There are regional inequalities too. By the second half of the autumn term in 2020, the average learning loss in maths for primary schools was 5.3 months in Yorkshire and the Humber, compared with just 0.5 months in the south-west.

By March 2021, the national tutoring programme, the Department’s flagship programme, had reached 100% of its target in the south-west, but just 58% in the north-east, 59% in the north-west, and 60% in my region of the east. These regional disparities should not be occurring.

Secondly, rates of persistent absence remain high, but without up-to-date data from the Department we do not know how many “ghost children” continue to experience severe levels of absence. In December, the Department announced that rates of persistent absence had risen to 16.3% in secondary schools in the autumn of 2020. That equates to almost 502,000 of the 3 million secondary-age pupils. I strongly support the work of the Children’s Commissioner in this regard. Her new report suggests that 124,000 children were severely absent last year. However, we do not yet have the Department’s official absence figures even for the summer term of 2021. Without that data, we risk creating an Oliver Twist generation of children, lost to the system forever.

Thirdly, Randstad and the national tutoring programme are not delivering for the most disadvantaged pupils. Our inquiry found that the NTP had reached just 15% of its overall target. Some headteachers described the “bureaucratic nightmare” of navigating Randstad’s tuition hub, and said that there was a “lack of communication” with schools about the programme. Concerningly, Randstad has also reportedly removed the requirement to reach 65% of children eligible for the pupil premium from its tutoring contracts with providers.

On Friday, the Secretary of State announced that the Department had agreed to publish mid-term data on the performance of the NTP, and that the £65 million originally allocated to the tutor and academic mentor NTP pillars would now go directly to the school-led tutoring arm. We strongly support that move, which we called for in our recommendations. I believe that all the money should have gone to schools, because they would have known how best to spend it, and could have been judged on the outcome.

Figures published by Randstad, mentioned by the Department, suggest that more than 1 million young people have now started tutoring courses, but there are questions to be asked about those figures. For instance, 311,000 of these new starts were made in the previous academic year, when the previous contractor, EEF, was leading the roll-out of the NTP. In total, only 720,000 new starts have been made this academic year, according to the statistics. Moreover, Randstad has revealed that about one in six pupils are enrolled on multiple courses, and are therefore double-counted. Of course I am pleased that more young people are accessing the help and support that they need to catch up on their lost learning, but much greater effort is required to target that support at those who need it the most. The Government must ensure that Randstad shapes up. They have made some changes, but if things do not improve dramatically they must cancel the Randstad contract.

Finally, the Department needs to do more to support young people’s mental health. Our Committee heard that the number of children referred for mental health support in 2020 represented an increase of nearly 60% in comparison with 2018. The impact of social media was especially concerning. Research shows that, just last year, 16.7% of 11 to 16-year-olds using social media agreed that it had had a negative impact on their wellbeing. One in three girls said that they were unhappy with their personal appearance by the age of 14, and 78% of Barnardo’s practitioners reported that children aged 11 to 15 had accessed unsuitable or harmful content through social media. These are worrying trends. Our report asks an important question: how can we ensure that the catch-up programme delivers for the most disadvantaged?

First, we need more reliable and up-to-date data to establish the full effect of the pandemic on children and young people. This data must include regional breakdowns, and must pay due regard to disadvantage and special educational needs. Greater statistical transparency is also needed on the performance of Randstad and the NTP.

Secondly, we need to end the spaghetti junction, as we call it, of catch-up funding. It is a fragmented catch-up programme with complex and bureaucratic funding applications that schools have to navigate. Teachers know their pupils best, and our report recommends that the funding schemes are simplified and merged into one pot for schools to access and spend where the recovery need is greatest. Any future initiative should direct funding to schools using existing mechanisms for disadvantage, such as pupil premium eligibility. Then, schools should be held accountable for how they spend the funds on improvements for the children.

Thirdly, the Department should launch a pilot scheme in the country’s most disadvantaged areas to explore the benefits that a longer school day—in terms of extracurricular activity such as sport, music and drama—could bring to pupils’ educational attainment and mental health recovery. The Minister will know that there is a wealth of statistics to show that such extra activities improve both the mental health of children and their educational attainment. This is topical, given that we have heard mention of the online harms Bill. The Government should introduce a social media levy on the profits of social media companies. That could be distributed to schools to support better online harm and mental health resilience training. For example, from a 2% levy, the Government could raise £100 million, which could be spent on resilience for children. It would certainly concentrate the minds of the social media companies.

Finally, the Department for Education should take really urgent steps to address the issue of persistent and severe absence by working with schools and local authorities proactively and appointing attendance practitioners to work with parents, local authorities and schools to return these children safely and quickly into school. There are 13,000 children missing in year 11, a crucial exam year. The most disadvantaged schools have the equivalent of a whole classroom missing. Dramatic action must be taken by the Department to get these so-called ghost children back into school and learning again.

Education catch-up must be for the long term. If the Department is to make the case to the Treasury that the programme is making a difference and if it is to get more funding for the future, it has to prove that the programme is providing value for money for the taxpayer with the existing funds and also, most importantly, that the catch-up programme is really working for the most disadvantaged pupils. Education should be the cornerstone for levelling up, and every avenue should be taken to extend the ladder of opportunity to every child. Charles Dickens wrote of

“so many things forgotten, and so many more which might have been repaired”.

If we are to ensure the catch-up is fit for purpose and to the benefit of every child, we must act to fix it now.

I thank the Chair of the Select Committee for his statement. We have often worked on issues in our constituencies that share similarities. I agree with him about the spaghetti junction of the funding. How does he think we can support the Government in unravelling this spaghetti junction and recognising, as he said, that schools are the only people to be able to lead this recovery, with the proper governance structures? Can we do more to help?

I was pleased to visit the hon. Lady’s constituency when I was the Skills Minister and to go to her wonderful FE college. As I said earlier, and as we say in our report, the Government say that they believe in school autonomy, so why not ensure that the funds go direct to the schools so that they can spend them on the catch-up programme as they see fit? The Government need to look at long-term reform of the pupil premium to ensure that it reflects the long-term disadvantaged, but why not give it to the schools and then look at the metrics to see how the children are improving in terms of the catch-up? When they need to intervene and offer support, they can do so. At the moment, there are different funding streams and it is incredibly difficult and bureaucratic for the schools to deal with these funds. It just makes life complicated. As we know, the Randstad part of these strands is not working properly, despite significant amounts of taxpayers’ money being put into it.

It is a real privilege to serve under the chairmanship of the right hon. Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon) on the Education Committee. As we know, Kevan Collins recommended £15 billion to meet the needs of catch-up, and the £5 billion that is available falls far short of that. The fact is that the national tutoring programme is failing to meet pupils’ needs at the moment. Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that the contract needs to be terminated as soon as possible?

I am very close to saying yes, the contract should be terminated. We have said that Randstad should perhaps be given one last chance. The Government made some changes last Friday, but if they announced today that they were terminating the contract with Randstad, I would certainly not be upset. I suspect that most teachers and support staff would not be upset either. I have always worked for more funding for schools, and I absolutely get that there is a debate about more money, but my point is that, if the Department goes for more money when the £5 billion it has already been given is not working properly, not giving kids what they need and not giving the taxpayer value for money, how can the Department go to the Treasury and say that actually it should be £10 billion or £15 billion if the existing money is not being used to get it right?

I thank the Chair and the Select Committee for putting together this report. This is clearly not my specialist subject, as the right hon. Gentleman knows from last week, but it is clearly not Randstad’s either. The entire programme is, as the tutoring providers have said, shambolic and at risk of catastrophic failure. Having sat on Select Committees, I appreciate how words are carefully chosen and I see that the report states on page 30:

“It is not clear that the National Tutoring Programme will deliver for the pupils that need it most.”

Sometimes words get argued over. Perhaps the right hon. Gentleman could elaborate on that. As I understand it, the requirement that 65% of places should be allocated to children on the pupil premium was dropped. Could he explain a bit more on that?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his questions. On the first point, it is not just our report saying this; the Department for Education itself said in its December report that there were significant problems with the catch-up programme. It is quoted in the report. He may have been reading the direct quote from the Department. I forget whether that was the exact quote, but there was one from the Department itself saying that there were significant problems with the catch-up. I beg his pardon, but what was his second point?

I have been worried about this, and I have raised it with the Minister on the Floor of the House and in the Select Committee. The Minister has said that that target remains, although there is some flexibility in terms of some of the tutoring groups. I am absolutely clear that the catch-up programme should reach the most disadvantaged. My worry is that it is not, and we will continue to press the Government and make sure that it does.

I thank the Select Committee Chair for his statement and for answering the questions put to him.

Bill Presented

Online Safety Bill

Presentation and First Reading (Standing Order No. 57)

Nadine Dorries, supported by the Prime Minister, Secretary Dominic Raab, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Secretary Priti Patel, Secretary Sajid Javid, Chris Philp, Julia Lopez and Mr Damian Hinds presented a Bill to make provision for and in connection with the regulation by OFCOM of certain internet services; for and in connection with communications offences; and for connected purposes.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time tomorrow, and to be printed (Bill 285).

Ordered, That the Explanatory Notes relating to the Bill be printed (Bill 285—EN).