Department for Education’s e-learning unpreparedness widens inequality among students

Department is ‘surprisingly resistant’ to a lessons-learned exercise based on findings during Covid, says Public Accounts Committee report

A report published today by the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) has criticised a lack of readiness and planning at the Department for Education (DfE) to deal with the challenges around schooling prompted by Covid-19, as well as an unwillingness to learn from the adverse experiences that are widening inequality among students.

Despite being involved in a 2016 cross-government exercise on dealing with a pandemic, the DfE set no standards for in-school or remote learning since schools closed to most pupils in early 2020, said the report.

The PAC also said the DfE has provided “little specific detail” about how it will act to address the damage to students prompted by the Covid-19 crisis, as well as how it will secure value for money from the £400m it has spent on IT equipment, and the £1.7bn it has committed to the catch-up programme to address the educational gaps emerging from the pandemic.

“Online learning was inaccessible to many children even in later lockdowns and there is no commitment to ongoing additional funding for IT,” said Meg Hillier, chair of the PAC. “Schools will be expected to fund laptops out of their existing, and already squeezed, budgets.”

Regarding IT investment, the PAC pointed out that the DfE initially considered trying to provide 602,000 laptops and tablets and 100,000 4G routers to priority groups of children. These plans were then scaled back, and by the end of the 2020 summer term, almost 215,000 laptops or tablets and 50,000 routers had been delivered to children with a social worker and care leavers, and for disadvantaged children in year 10.

The DfE continued to distribute IT equipment during the 2020/21 school year, and by March 2021 had provided almost 1.3 million laptops and tablets.

The Department said it wanted to strike a balance between centralised procurement and allowing schools the autonomy to make their own choices about IT provision, and that these bodies should manage the risk of obsolescence and schools should use their core funding to maintain the provision of suitable equipment.

In response to the DfE’s IT equipment plans, the PAC said the Department should set out a plan for how it will ensure that all vulnerable and disadvantaged children have access to IT equipment to support their learning at home, both in normal times and when there is disruption to schooling. Such a strategy should clarify the roles of the Department, local authorities and schools, while also setting out what funding will be available to maintain and replace equipment, said the report.

The disruption had particularly damaging effects on vulnerable children, said the PAC, and the proportion of pupils facing adversity who attended school or college remained below 11% until late May 2020, and reached 26% on average by the end of the summer term of that year.

Disadvantaged children faced major barriers to effective home learning, said the report, and this contributed to widening the gap between them and their peers. The PAC said there is evidence that the targeted elements of the DfE’s catch-up programme to make up for lost learning may not be reaching the most disadvantaged children.

Remote learning was also especially challenging for children with special educational needs and disabilities, said the report, and some had lost access to specialist support and equipment since the crisis began.

“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,” said Hillier.

The PAC report noted that the DfE was seemingly “uninterested” in learning from the lessons posed since the start of the pandemic, and was opting to “wait until the public enquiry, which won’t report for years”. It said current DfE attitudes in relation to the challenges associated with remote learning demonstrated “little energy and determination” to ensure that the catch-up offer is sufficient and addresses the impact caused since Covid began disrupting schooling.

As regards the catch-up learning plans, the report recommended that the DfE writes to the PAC alongside its Treasury minute response, setting out clear metrics that it will use to monitor the catch-up learning programme, and what level of performance would represent success.

In response to the PAC’s observations, the DfE said it had “learnt lessons organically” and wanted to consider those jointly with other government departments, rather than analyse and respond unilaterally. But the PAC said this approach “risks learning lessons too late to improve how it supports the education system in the event of further disruption” and recommended a systematic lessons-learned exercise to evaluate the DfE’s response to the pandemic and identify departmental-specific lessons, then write back with the findings.

The PAC’s report on the implications of remote learning on UK students follows a report published by the National Audit Office (NAO) in March, which found that children’s socio-economic status had affected their experiences with digital learning, and most teachers considered their pupils to be, on average, three months behind where they would be expected to be.

According to the NAO report, although the DfE quickly took action when the pandemic hit, it could have responded better in some aspects and been more effective in mitigating the learning that pupils had lost as a result of the disruption. The Department also did not aim to provide equipment to all children who lacked it, the report said, due to the “practical difficulties” of distributing devices at this scale.

Children also had contrasting experiences with remote learning resources provided by schools and the level of contact with teachers, said the NAO report. Some 82% of secondary pupils in private schools had received active help, such as online classes, or video and text chat. By contrast, 64% of secondary pupils in state schools from the richest one-fifth of households received active help, compared with 47% of pupils from the poorest one-fifth.