DfE “uninterested in learning lessons” amid concerns over scale of hidden harm

Parliamentary committee says the Department for Education had “no plan” for the challenges of COVID-19, despite being involved in a 2016 cross-government exercise on dealing with a pandemic.

26/05/21

DfE “uninterested in learning lessons” amid concerns over scale of hidden harm

The Public Accounts Committee has said that the Department for Education (DfE) was unprepared for the effects of COVID-19, and that it has still not properly assessed its early response in order to learn lessons for the future.

The report released today (Wednesday 26 May) by the committee said that “children had very unequal experiences” and that the disruption to schooling had particularly damaging effects on children who were already facing adversity.

Although they could continue attending, the proportion of vulnerable children who attended school or college remained below 11% until late May 2020, and only ever reached an average 26%, by the end of the summer term.

Referrals to children’s social care services fell by 15% and remain 10% lower year-on-year – which the committee said raised concerns about ongoing ‘hidden harm’ to children.

Children with special educational needs and disabilities found remote learning especially difficult, and some lost access to specialist support and equipment, increasing risks to their health and welfare. Disadvantaged children also faced “major barriers” to effective home learning, widening the gap between them and their peers, the committee said.

The committee also criticised a lack of “specific detail” about the DfE’s catch-up programme, and said there is already evidence that the targeted elements may not be reaching the most disadvantaged children. It said the Department has “worthy aspirations” but it was not clear how it will secure value for money from the £400 million it’s spent on IT equipment, and the £1.7 billion it has committed to the catch-up programme.

Labour MP Meg Hillier, Chair of the Public Accounts Committee, 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 enquiry 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 fourteen months.”

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