Quite simply, this debate could not be any more important. The inaction of the Government in catching up the lost learning of our young people will be felt by many of them for a lifetime. Why is it that our children, teachers and schools have been treated as an afterthought at every stage of the pandemic? We have seen the Government: closing schools without a second thought for those pupils who could not log in or learn from home; opening schools back up for less than 24 hours to encourage the virus to run rife; and leaving every announcement until past even the 11th hour—whether it be on exams, on testing, on vaccines.
When it comes to education, the contrast could not be starker. This Government think that they can cut corners on the months of lost learning, but, for Labour, education is so important that we say it three times. The catch-up programme does not even come close to meeting “the scale of the challenge.” Those are not my words, but the words of the Government’s own education recovery tsar whose resignation in June is all the evidence that anyone needs when considering whether the scale of the challenge is really understood. Sir Kevan’s essential proposals were watered down to the tune of less than 10% of the funding that he insisted was required. Why does the Minister think that this issue can be just brushed under the carpet?
While the Chancellor blocks the catch-up funding with one hand, he waves away wasted billions with another: £8.7 billion lost on PPE; £4.3 billion handed out to fraudsters; and a bonus £200 million thrown at the plans to downgrade St Helier Hospital to healthy, wealthy Belmont rather than keeping services where health is poorest.
We are eight months on since Sir Kevan’s damning indictment of the so-called catch-up plan. I take no satisfaction in saying that every word of his damning predictions has come true. It is a catch-up programme that is so inept that the national tutoring programme is even teaching to empty classrooms. An assistant headteacher at a school in Derby shockingly reports that her school was paying a tutor to sit with no pupils for an hour. It is scandalous. How is this possibly a good use of public funds, and how on earth does it help our young children to catch up? The failings are there for all to see. Only one in five headteachers in the north-east of England uses the programme. Many schools have found it impossible to enrol new children onto it, and the scheme is reaching less than 10% of its target pupil number. It is no wonder that tuition providers themselves have described it as shambolic.
Before lockdown, children on free school meals were leaving school 18 months behind their classmates and the gap was getting worse. Schools closed and a quarter of these children did less than one hour’s schoolwork a day. Lockdown was temporary but could have a lifelong impact, with the Institute of Fiscal Studies warning that students who had lost six months of schooling could see a reduction in lifetime income of 4%.
In primary schools, the unavoidable reality is of a covid gap of approximately two months’ learning in year 2 pupils and a widening of the disadvantage gap in attainment. Meanwhile, a quarter fewer poor pupils achieved English and maths GCSEs during the pandemic than their richer classmates, and the divide continues to grow.
There were 415,000 children off school with covid on