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‘Worst Education Secretary in a Generation’: Children Utterly Failed by Government’s Lack of COVID Contingency Planning, Report Finds

Nearly two-thirds of students classified as ‘disadvantaged’ received no help at all, in the form of mentors or laptops for online learning at home, the National Audit Office says

Education Secretary Gavin Williamson visits Trafford College in 2019. Photo: Peter Byrne/PA Archive/PA Images

‘Worst Education Secretary in a Generation’Children Utterly Failed by Government’s Lack of COVID Contingency Planning, New Report Finds

Nearly two-thirds of students classified as ‘disadvantaged’ received no help at all, in the form of mentors or laptops for online learning at home, the National Audit Office says

The Education Secretary has let down 98% of England’s 8.2 million schoolchildren by failing to have any contingency plan to cope with the mass closure of state schools due to the Coronavirus pandemic, it is revealed today.

This is the staggering percentage of pupils estimated by the spending watchdog, the National Audit Office (NAO), to have fallen behind with their education because the Government was too slow to implement schemes to help children study at home or continuing attending school.

Worse still, the majority of vulnerable and disadvantaged students had to wait months before the Government could provide help in the form of mentors or laptops so that they could study at home.

Many did not receive any help until the end of the summer term – four months after schools had to close as part of England’s first Coronavirus lockdown last March. Nearly two-thirds of students classified as ‘disadvantaged’ received no help at all.

The NAO report reveals that, in early April, the Department for Education considered providing 602,000 laptops or tablets and 100,000 routers for the most vulnerable and disadvantaged children. But then ministers and civil servants scaled down the programme to help only one-third of the most vulnerable children. They focused on pupils with a social worker and care leavers, alongside disadvantaged pupils in Year 10 – requiring a total of 220,000 laptops and tablets, and 50,000 routers.

However, it took until June to distribute the first 50,000 laptops and it was not until the last week of the Summer term that it got anywhere near to achieving its 220,000 target – with 212,900 laptops and 49,700 routers provided. As a result, many of the most vulnerable students missed out on receiving any online education at all.

Unfortunately, the provision of mentors was just as bad and the situation has still not been rectified. The NAO report reveals that Gavin Williamson’s department initially expected the tuition partners scheme to support between 200,000 and 250,000 students. By February this year, 125,200 children had been allocated a tutoring place across 3,984 schools. However, only 41,000 of them have started receiving tuition and less than half of them are disadvantaged children.

Similarly, demands for a Teach First programme of academic mentors in schools has outstripped supply. Some 1,789 schools requested these mentors but, by last month, only 1,100 had received them – leaving more than 600 schools without any.

While the Department for Education produced a lot of guidance for schools – some 150 documents and updates in the first month of the Coronavirus pandemic – the NAO said that “an informal survey of its members by the Chartered College of Teaching found that 67% of respondents thought the Department’s guidance on remote learning was unhelpful or very unhelpful. The figure for in-school learning was 58%”.

Nor were schools entirely reimbursed for all the extra money they have spent on the Coronavirus crisis. The NAO found that Williamson’s department refunded £133 million of the £181 million claimed by schools – resulting in a 27% shortfall.

Both the Liberal Democrats and the Labour Party criticised the department over the report’s findings.

“This report confirms what parents and teachers have known for a year: that a whole generation of children and young people have been let down by an Education Secretary who lurched from one crisis to the next, wreaking havoc on their lives,” Daisy Cooper, Liberal Democrat Spokesperson for Education, said.

“From the free school meal U-turns, the ‘A’ Level grading fiasco, the shamefully slow roll-out of laptops, the botched schools re-opening plans, and the failure to take decisive action on this year’s exams, Gavin Williamson is the worst Education Secretary in England in a generation. He’s made such a hash of it, it is quite frankly beyond comprehension that he’s still in post.”

Meanwhile, Meg Hillier, Labour chair of the Commons Public accounts Committee, said that, with no contingency plan, the Department for Education’s reaction was slower and less effective than it could have been.

“DfE’s failure to do its homework has come at the expense of children – and has hit those who were already disadvantaged the hardest,” she said. “DfE must now ensure its support is properly targeted to prevent the gap between disadvantaged children and their peers from widening even further.”

Byline Times contacted the Department for Education for comment.

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