Government intervention can help bridge the COVID-19 attainment gap – but resources must be accessible to all

Optimism has been in short supply in education lately, but the recent announcement of a cash injection for schools, alongside a National Tutoring Programme, has the potential to make a big difference in helping children catch up after COVID-19 school closures.

There is significant work to do. A phased return to the classroom is further widening the attainment gap – where many children, particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds or who have special educational needs, are being deprived of professional educational support. And, of course, the longer pupils stay away, the harder it will be for them to reinsert themselves into school life and focus on their school work upon return.

In fact, research from Explore Learning recently found that the Coronavirus pandemic means more than half of children (58%) worry about returning to school. But the virus itself isn’t the only driving force – diverging experiences during the lockdown period means fear over being seen as less intelligent than their peers (17%), are exacerbated. These anxieties are likely to become prevalent in those children who are not receiving educational support and encouragement.

That’s why the announcement of extra funding, together with a year-long National Tutoring Programme, is welcome.

Even before the pandemic, tutoring has been demonstrated to increase achievement and attainment, complementing in-school teaching. For some, like the Sutton Trust, tutoring – with proper, equitable access, represents a way to advance social mobility; helping develop the skills and attributes which will eventually lead to better employment opportunities. However, and particularly in the wake of COVID-19, we believe that it must be made more accessible and widely available in order to have widespread impact. 

But the government response already risks being divisive too. Currently, the planned £650m cash injection for schools is expected to be spread evenly among schools, with no additional resource for those in disadvantaged areas. In order to really close the “COVID gap”, the response needs to be weighted towards those from less well-off backgrounds as well as those with special educational needs.

Similarly, the government must ensure the National Tutoring Programme has a robust face-to-face element. Online learning is much easier logistically at the moment – and currently, pilots for the ‘National Tutoring Programme Partners’ strand are all online. But students who have struggled to access education during lockdown may well struggle to access online tutoring too, with a lack of devices or internet access proving prohibitive. What’s more, in-person support, and the presence of small groups learning in the same room, can help support the gradual transition to life back in the classroom for children who might struggle otherwise.

That’s why we believe that, if the Government is serious about supporting children in a return to learning, it must be aimed at reaching those who need it most to close the gap. Part of this is in targeting schools in less well off areas and ring fencing catch-up provision for students with special educational needs. This is in addition to delivering a fully blended approach, mixing online and socially distanced, in-person tuition. As well as improving the scheme’s reach, we know from running our tuition centres the value of the face-to-face element of tutoring in building confidence in children.

Indeed, while the effort to ensure children to keep learning has been a valiant one, the effort to make up educational ground won’t succeed without addressing some of the reasons why some children have fallen further behind than others during the past few months. That means any tutoring scheme needs to be accessible to those who need it most, offering the crucial two-way connection between teacher and learner, delivered at least partly in person to make sure the ‘technology gap’ doesn’t further increase the learning gap imposed by COVID-19.