Luke Cavanaugh argues that the government ‘catch-up’ fund is a welcome step towards levelling a post-Covid playing field, but must not be an end in itself. While the National Tutoring Programme will prove useful in keeping the education sector above water, better employment of EdTech might just help it thrive.

COVID-19: setbacks in education

Like many sectors, education has been set back recently, with schools closed and exams cancelled while the immediate threat of the pandemic was being tackled. But as planning for a post-Covid Britain gathers speed, two weeks ago saw the announcement of a £1bn educational ‘catch-up’ fund, targeted at supporting students in the state sector who have largely struggled to access any educational resources over the past few months.

The statistics are shocking. The National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER) recently found that some four in ten UK pupils are not in regular contact with their teachers,1 following estimates from University College London’s Institute of Education that two million pupils in the UK – around one in five – had managed less than one hour of schoolwork a day over lockdown.2 Fears of increasing disparities in education over the lockdown are well-founded, with signs that this missed schooling could lead to lower growth and greater inequality. The attainment gap was predicted to widen by as much as 36% between the richest and poorest students without any direct intervention to help students ‘catch up’.3 Yet it remains clear that there is no ‘quick fix’ to this problem.

National Tutoring Programme: what, and why?

The fund itself has two components: £650m will go directly to schools, whilst £350m will be used to establish a ‘National Tutoring Programme’ (NTP). This programme will provide subsidised private tutoring sessions, and free coaches for up to two million disadvantaged primary and secondary school pupils from September. The NTP seeks to take advantage of the UK’s booming private tuition industry, worth over £6.5bn today,4 by subsidising school usage of private tutors by up to 75%, and training recent graduates to provide ‘intensive catch-up support to pupils’.

But while the £1bn total fund represents a rise of 1% in education spending, a raft of cuts since 2010 still leaves real-term state-sector spending 3% lower than in 2010. According to Simon Burgess, small-group tuition of 30 minutes a day for twelve weeks has an impressive effect on learning: as much as roughly four months of schooling.5 To support students up to GCSE level in this way, however, he argues, would cost around £410m, substantially higher than the funds allocated in the National Tutoring Programme.

What is more, the NTP in its current formulation is designed only to support students up to and including GCSE level, with the impetus being placed on college students to foster their own scholarly independence. It is true that they may cope better on the whole with independent learning compared with their younger peers. But they have by no means been immune to the significant emotional strain brought by lockdown and the virus – not to mention those with family members who have fallen ill, or who have fallen ill themselves.

What else? EdTech

The £1bn ‘catch-up’ fund is a welcome addition to the country’s attempts to get back on its feet, as well as those of schools preparing to restart in September. But the crisis is far from over, and remote learning still has a part to play, particularly for those older students missed out by the NTP.

One possible solution is greater investment in, and subsequent rolling out of, Edtech – one of Britain’s fastest growing economies. A 91% increase in investment from 2018 to 2019 cemented Britain’s place as the most attractive EdTech market in Europe,6 and an immediate focus on integrating these products into the education market cohesively builds upon the government’s £100m commitment to providing devices and internet access to vulnerable and disadvantaged students back in April.7

Zoom Meetings, Google Hangouts, Showbie and Slack have all become common-use terms up and down the country over the past few months, but those apps that directly support learning might turn out to be just as important. From self-marking homeworks to online video tutorials, interactive textbooks to graphic modelling, a new wave of educational apps is emerging at just the right time.

While the ‘Catch-up’ relief fund will prove useful in keeping the education sector above water, better employment of EdTech might just help it thrive.

References

1 Sally Weale, ‘Four in 10 pupils have had little contact with teachers during lockdown,’ Guardian, 15 Jun 2020 <https://www.theguardian.com/education/2020/jun/15/2m-children-in-uk-have-done-almost-no-school-work-in-lockdown>.

2 Francis Green, ‘Schoolwork in lockdown: new evidence on the epidemic of educational poverty,’ LLAKES, Research Paper 67 (2020).

3 Education Endowment Foundation, Impact of School Closures on the Attainment Gap: Rapid Evidence Assessment (London: EEF, 2020).

4 ‘The private tuition industry in the UK,’ KCW London, 17 Feb 2020 <https://www.kcwtoday.co.uk/2020/02/private-tuition-industry-uk/>.

5 Simon Burgess, ‘How can we make up the learning losses from lockdown?’, Economics Observatory, 15 Jun 2020 <https://www.coronavirusandtheeconomy.com/how-can-we-make-learning-losses-lockdown>.

6 ‘UK EdTech sector could be worth £3.4bn by 2021’, FE News, 25 May 2020

<https://www.fenews.co.uk/press-releases/47967-embargoed-coronavirus-crisis-puts-spotlight-on-uk-edtech-companies-as-schools-and-teachers-embrace-online-learning>.

7 ‘Thousands of schools to benefit from ground-breaking partnership with tech giants to support home learning,’ FE News, 24 Apr 2020 <https://www.fenews.co.uk/home-learning/46194-government-plans-to-deliver-remote-learning-supported-by-microsoft>.