MPs call for action on pandemic-widened gap between England’s poor and rich pupils

It could take a decade for the attainment gap between disadvantaged pupils and their wealthier peers to return to pre-pandemic levels in England without faster and more effective intervention, MPs have warned.

The estimate was made during evidence given to parliament’s influential public accounts committee (PAC) as part of its inquiry into education recovery after the disruption of Covid.

The growing attainment gap has become a source of concern among headteachers and ministers who are monitoring the impact of the pandemic on education, described as a “slow motion catastrophe” by the PAC chair.

MPs on the committee warned that without faster and more effective government intervention, the legacy of the pandemic would be to entrench disadvantage and damage the prospects of an entire generation of children.

They also said that the government’s flagship national tutoring programme (NTP), set up to help children catch up on lost learning, was in danger of “withering on the vine” as government subsidies are reduced.

The warnings are contained in a PAC report on education recovery in schools in England, published on Wednesday, which calls on the government to set out clear plans on how it intends to reduce the disadvantage gap and increase school attendance.

Results of tests taken last year by pupils at key stages 1, 2 and 4 of their education showed the disadvantage gap between rich and poor has grown significantly since the start of the pandemic, reversing progress made to narrow the gap since 2012.

In 2022 the disadvantage gap index – used to measure the difference in attainment – was 3.23 at the end of primary school, compared with 2.90 in 2018.

According to the PAC report, the Department for Education said it should be able to reduce the disadvantage gap at least as quickly as it had done in the 10 years before the Covid-19 pandemic, and that it ought to set itself the challenge of going as fast, or faster, in closing the gap as it had done previously.

“We note, however, that this would mean potentially taking as much as another decade to get back to the position before the pandemic,” the report notes.

On the NTP, the report points out in 2021/2 the tuition offer was not taken up by 13% of schools in England, meaning that pupils in these schools missed out on the benefits of subsidised tutoring.

Dame Meg Hillier, committee chair, said: “The DfE does not seem to appreciate the pressures schools are under as they seek to help pupils catch up amid funding constraints, challenges in recruitment and retention for staff and growing mental health needs for pupils.

“It is therefore essential that government reckons with the reality of the situation and publishes focused plans on reducing the disadvantage gap and absence rates. It must also bolster uptake of tuition, an essential programme at risk of withering on the vine as subsidies are sharply reduced.”

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The subsidy rate is tapered each year, moving from 75% in 2021-22 to a planned 25% in 2023-24. The government recently agreed to increase the subsidy rate to 50% next year, so schools have to find half, rather than three-quarters of the cost.

Hiller warned: “Without swift action, the slow-motion catastrophe of the pandemic for children’s education, and in particular for disadvantaged children, will continue to have far-reaching consequences for an entire generation.”

Dr Patrick Roach, general secretary of the NASUWT teachers’ union, said: “We warned that the government’s catch-up plans were wholly inadequate to deal with the profound challenges experienced by children and young people as a result of the pandemic.

“It is now abundantly clear that government policy is failing to deliver for a generation of children and young people.

Natalie Perera, chief executive of the Education Policy Institute, said: “As the DfE’s own data shows, the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic has erased 10 years of progress in narrowing the disadvantage gap. It is clear that greater investment is needed to recover lost learning for the current generation of pupils.”

A DfE spokesperson said the government had made available £5bn for education recovery and remained committed to addressing the attainment gap, adding: Despite the effect of the pandemic, England came fourth out of 43 countries that tested children of the same age in the Pirls [Progress in International Reading Literacy Study] international survey of the reading ability of nine- and 10-year-olds.”

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