“We have so many kids who haven’t got a crayon, let alone a computer or an iPad.”
Coronavirus and the ensuing school closures have exposed the utter lack of resources available to deprived pupils in Cheshire, according to Diane Clark, founder of local education charity Passion For Learning.
Help for these children, without a crayon between them, lies far beyond the government’s promise in June of a £1bn “catch-up plan” for English state schools.
This spending is broken down into two parts: £350m is earmarked for the National Tutoring Programme (NTP), which aims to subsidise tutoring by up to 75 per cent for students who have fallen behind as a result of school closures. It also aims to place mentors in schools full time to aid the catch-up process. The remaining £650m will be divided up among schools.
While additional funding for schools is positive, says Clark, the NTP will not be sufficient to meet the needs of the pupils she works with. Her charity aims to help disadvantaged schoolchildren, some with very challenging home lives, with their reading and self-confidence through weekly one-to-one sessions in schools with volunteers.
Many of the children she works with do not have a single book at home, Clark says. To counteract this, Passion For Learning has spent around £7,000 on books since lockdown began, and distributed them to schools to be collected by children with their free school meal vouchers.
Clark says the charity has also delivered more than 2,000 activity bags to children’s homes, filled with games, stationery and workbooks. Clark’s team is also working to pack an additional 2,800 activity bags and 450 larger packages with food and activities for families in greater need.
She estimates the charity has reached more than 120 nursery, primary and secondary schools during the lockdown.
But more resources need to go home with pupils in case of another lockdown, Clark warns, so that no child goes without a pencil or books to read while they’re outside the classroom.
For many pupils, the lockdown created not just a barrier to learning, but also left a void in their social support system usually filled by school.
“Their whole world changed overnight and some of these children have very difficult home circumstances and school is their oasis of safety and peace and calm,” says Clark. They sometimes don’t like being at home in the evenings, let alone for six months solid.
Far more work than tutoring alone will be needed when children return, Clark warns, as many pupils will arrive anxious that schools might close again.
Emotional support in particular will be vital to coach children back to a state of mind in which they are ready to learn again. As one local headteacher told Clark when her school began to reopen: “The children we’ve got back in school are not the children we sent home in March.
“The majority of children were very quiet when they came back to school, well, quieter than they were in March when we had to close,” said the headteacher, who did not wish to be named.
Some children were too shy to speak to friends, and it took them a few days to start feeling comfortable in the school environment again, she added. She was also surprised to see that some of the younger children, who were usually quiet, were “giddy with liveliness” when they returned to school.
Trauma training was given to the teachers at her school to help them understand the increased emotional needs of the pupils returning before the summer holiday.
“We’ve all been through a trauma… every child will have experienced it in their own way,” she said.
The closure of schools has also had a very substantial impact on children with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND). Fewer than one in four pupils has been sent differentiated work for their needs, according to online community for parents Special Needs Jungle – meaning three quarters of SEND pupils cannot complete work at home even if they receive it.
“We are seeing a lot of children not receiving the educational support or the health and social care support that they need, which helps them to be able to learn more effectively,” says James Robinson from charity Mencap, which works with children and adults with a learning disability.
This lack of support is partly down to a legal change under the Coronavirus Act 2020, which relaxes the statutory duties of local authorities to provide measures set out in a pupil’s Education, Health and Care plan.
Some children with SEND who have struggled at home may return with more challenging behaviour, increasing the risk of them being excluded from school, says Robinson. A particular concern is that such challenging behaviour could also result in more pupils being referred to inpatient wards, which could be detrimental to their social wellbeing and mental health as well as disruptive to their education.
Robinson also argues that £1bn is not sufficient to meet the needs of all pupils, and that pupils with SEND are often not a priority when it comes to funding allocation.
“There would need to be a real focus from local authorities and schools to allocate that money to that particular group and I would urge them to do that,” he says.
Ross Morrison McGill, founder of teaching blog Teacher Toolkit, has concerns about the £650m portion of the budget. He warns funding may not actually be spent on additional help for pupils to catch up on missed education, instead being eaten up by the need to fund the increased costs schools face in the age of Covid-19.
The money may very quickly disappear, considering new demands to make the school environment safer with hand gel and extra cleaning, he warns.
On top of this, teachers’ pay is set to increase by 3.1 per cent in September – another strain on school budgets.
All this, while extra sources of income – such as renting school classrooms, halls and sports facilities to companies and charities during the holidays – have been lost during the pandemic.
McGill is concerned years of underfunding from the government has left headteachers with difficult decisions to make and heaped more work on teachers.
“The vast majority of English state schools have seen their budgets reduced and, as a result, headteachers have got to balance the books and they’ve either got to make people redundant or give people more work,” he says.
Schools are under pressure to deliver the same educational outcomes with fewer resources and teaching staff, which in his view was negatively impacting the quality of education delivered long before school closures.
Consistent and long-term funding is also what Susannah Hardyman, founder of the charity Action Tutoring, believes is necessary to close attainment gaps. Action Tutoring delivers subsidised tutoring in schools all over England to disadvantaged pupils, and it hopes to become a tutoring provider for the government’s NTP strategy.
“I would hope there is huge potential for a scheme like this to be able to extend beyond the year and become more embedded in our school system as part of closing the gaps and levelling the playing field,” says Hardyman, regarding the scheme.
On average, students from the most disadvantaged backgrounds leave secondary school 18 months behind their peers educationally, according to Action Tutoring statistics collated before the pandemic. The charity’s work in primary and secondary schools aims to reduce this attainment gap.
It seems that £1bn for schools would be a start in helping support pupils when they return in September, but it can’t be a solution to years of underfunding and a substantial attainment gap.
While all extra funding is welcome, it is clear consistent investment as opposed to a one-off injection of cash would really make a difference to the lives of English state school pupils.
A narrow focus on tutoring does not rise to the challenge schools face, with the additional burden of putting wellbeing and social support in place for when pupils return.
At the moment, £1bn is a plaster stuck on an education system that needs stitches to fully heal from the damage caused by underfunding.
Jenna Colaco is a Danson scholar, interning at the New Statesman.