A government plan to fund private tutors for students who need help catching up on their studies amid the coronavirus pandemic has been criticised by school leaders as poorly thought out and with little detail.
Last month the government revealed a £1bn fund – with primary and secondary schools given £650m to spend on one-to-one or group tuition for any pupils who they think need it. The most disadvantaged children will have access to tutors through a £350m programme over the course of the school year from September.
But headteachers have pointed out the money is not entirely new, as some funding to close gaps as pupils transition from primary to secondary schools is being scrapped.
And they also fear that many pupils, especially those from the most disadvantaged backgrounds, will be wary of opening up to a stranger and admitting they don’t know or understand things.
“It is great making headlines by saying there will be funding to tutor children – but there have been no real details,” Brian Walton, headteacher at Brookside Academy in Somerset, told HuffPost UK
“It should not be about throwing money at a problem until you know exactly what the nature of the problem is.
Others have questioned whether the money will actually be enough, as research by the Institute for Fiscal Studies suggests the £650m pot works out to be about £80 extra for each pupil.
“Children cannot learn until they feel safe, they are fed and they get back into a routine,” Tehmina Hashmi, executive director at Bradford Academy told HuffPost UK.
“It is not just as simple as plugging gaps in learning. It is about getting children back into the routines and talking to them about how they are feeling.
“It will take time for the new normal to be established before we can even begin to think about gaps in learning.”
Bradford Academy has a primary school and secondary school on the same site and Hashmi says that they have only recently opened to some wider pupils on top of the children of key workers and vulnerable pupils. She says that while some children have been excited to return to school, others have been anxious and nervous, particularly the younger ones.
The area of Bradford the school serves is one of the most deprived wards in the country and Hashmi told HuffPost UK that the coronavirus pandemic has led to more families being hit by poverty.
Children cannot learn until they feel safe, they are fed and they get back into a routine.” Tehmina Hashmi, executive director at Bradford Academy
“We have maintained contact with all our children and there are some children and families who we have door-step visited throughout the lockdown and we have also been delivering food parcels,” said Hashmi.
“Keeping that contact has been important and we know from the way food parcels have been received that some children have really been missing being at school.
As a headteacher, Hashmi has found herself getting constantly frustrated by the lack of clarity from government when it comes to everything that has happened since the coronavirus lockdown, that she has taken matters into her own hands.
“I have got to the point where I am just doing what is best for my kids with the resources I have.” she said. “I know what these children need so I can try to provide it by thinking about where I can make some savings and cut some costs.”
Hashmi disagrees with the way the government has chosen to bring children back into school by year groups such as reception, Year 1 and Year 6.
She says teachers know from telephone calls and monitoring online learning which children are and are not engaging with home learning and she believes a better tactic would be to bring those pupils back into school who have not been learning to meet their needs.
I have got to the point where I am just doing what is best for my kids with the resources I have.” Tehmina Hashmi, executive director at Bradford Academy
“In our Year 10, we know there are 40 pupils who have not engaged with learning despite our best efforts. My priority will be to target them rather than bringing back whole year groups.
“That’s what we will do for every year group and will roll this out and bring the pupils back who need it most without compromising health.”
Hashmi told HuffPost UK that although the extra funding for tutoring sounds good in theory, she has many reservations – including the fact that some funding has been taken away.
“The government has taken away the Year 7 catchup funding which is a grant for schools to use for pupils from Year 6 going into Year 7 to close any gaps in their learning.” she said. “So when taking this into account, some schools will only be getting a bit more money.”
Hashmi also feels there are too many restrictions attached to how the funding can be used – such as the mention of the tuition being carried out by “approved providers.”
“In the context of a school like mine where relationships with children are so important, engagement with our own staff would be better.” she said.
Siobhan Collingwood, headteacher at Morecambe Bay Community Primary School in Lancashire says her priority is making pupils feel safe and forging a reconnection with school life.
She told HuffPost UK that the problem with tutoring is that any vulnerable pupils throughout the country who haven’t been accessing home learning resources won’t be any more likely to take up tutoring.
“For many vulnerable pupils, their lifestyle is such that they may not easily be able to access tutoring. Some families might not have the IT or find time within their day.
“If there are families struggling with things like mental health issues, drug and alcohol problems and housing troubles, tutoring will not be top of their priorities.
“The reasons why they have not accessed home learning will still be there. What is going to be different in the way they respond to home learning and an hour’s lesson with a tutor? Why would we assume they access that when they have no relationship or connection with a tutor?”
Siobhan says the assumption seems to be that children can just pick up where they left off when they return to school – but the reality is very different.
“Children may have been hibernating and sleeping well into the day,” she said. “Their body clocks will have altered and to recharge a brain that has been in a state of lulling takes time.
“My priorities will be for children to feel safe and for them to reconnect with school, learning and teachers.”
She added: “To me, rather than funding for tutors, I think it would have been better to provide some really excellent summer school activities where children can meet up with other children and share their experiences over lockdown in an energised space and be in a better place to re-start school life in September.”
Children may have been hibernating and sleeping well into the day. Their body clocks will have altered and to recharge a brain that has been in a state of lulling takes time." Siobhan Collingwood, headteacher at Morecambe Bay Community Primary School in Lancashire
Brian Walton, headteacher at Brookside Academy in Somerset, told HuffPost UK that one of the things that frustrates school leaders is that the government makes announcements about schools but then doesn’t follow through with dialogue explaining how it will work.
“We are going to have to be realistic and look at the important gaps in the curriculum. How do we get an equity on who needs tuition and who doesn’t?
“It is about getting it right without making assumptions and we won’t know what is needed until we have got all the children back into school.”
Walton is concerned about when tutors will provide this catch up learning to pupils and says it will be detrimental to their learning if it is during school time and they are taken out of existing lessons.
“The idea that these tutors will come in during school time is crazy,” he said. “Taking children out of quality school lessons is not the answer.
’They will miss out on time with skilled teachers who know them better and working with other children who might help to bring them on.”
It should not be about throwing money at a problem until you know exactly what the nature of the problem is." Brian Walton, headteacher at Brookside Academy in Somerset
However, Walton also has reservations about tutoring taking place outside of school hours such as during evenings and weekends. “That requires buy-in from the children and parents.” he said.
“Parents would have to be committed to taking children somewhere on a Saturday. Some parents will jump at the chance – but others won’t.”
Dani Worthington, headteacher at Moorside Community Primary School in Ovenden, near Halifax, West Yorkshire, said her school had been trying to capture the children who have not been doing much learning during the lockdown.
“It is so difficult for some parents as they are illiterate themselves so they don’t know how to help their children with their learning,” she told HuffPost UK.
“Some families don’t have the Internet or might have four or five children at home clamouring around one tablet. They can’t manage or motivate their children to do their learning at home so they just give up.
“Our problem is we can’t make them do it. All we can do is encourage, support and offer advice. But ultimately, if they don’t want to do it, we can’t make them.”
Worthington says they know several children who haven’t done any learning at all during the lockdown and she admits that those who have chosen not to return to school are the ones they really need back in school.
I know a lot of my children would be wary of sharing what they can’t do with a stranger. They would be embarrassed to say they did not understand." Dani Worthington, headteacher at Moorside Community Primary School in Ovenden, near Halifax, West Yorkshire
She believes one-to-one tutoring to provide catch-up learning is a great idea as research has shown it has the biggest impact.
But she feels it would be better for existing school staff to provide the tuition. However, she knows it isn’t realistic for them to find the time to do it.
“I know a lot of my children would be wary of sharing what they can’t do with a stranger.” said Worthington. “They would be embarrassed to say they did not understand. They need to really trust an adult and might take a few sessions to build up that trust.”
Worthington also wants answers as to how the tutor funding will be distributed as she says the need will be greater for schools in more deprived areas such as hers.
“It is about targeting the really disadvantaged pupils who don’t have that support at home rather than a blanket funding for everyone.” she said. “We need to be conscious we are not letting these children down.”
Nansi Ellis, assistant general secretary for education policy and research at the National Education Union (NEU), told HuffPost UK that while it is good there will be money available to support pupils who need it, there is already confusion around who will be eligible and how it will work.
“There are two different pots of money – some for one-to-one tuition and some for smaller group tuition,” she said. “There was an ongoing pupil transition grant which has been scrapped so we are a bit cynical as this is not all new money and where else are they going to take money away from to put into this pot?”
Ellis says children across the country will have done different levels of home learning and some will have done very little to none. But she says looking after the emotional needs of youngsters must be the top priority.
“All children have been impacted by this coronavirus pandemic,” she said. “Some will have had many issues, especially if they have been living in chaotic households away from normal life.
“Some children may have suffered bereavement due to Covid-19 and others will have an increased awareness of anxiety.
“The overarching thing is what will these children need when they come back into school? The first thing schools will need to do is work out what they each individually need emotionally, physically and educationally.
“They need to look after the wellbeing of pupils as it is not just the loss of learning that will have impacted them – particularly those who come from vulnerable backgrounds.”
Ellis feels there is an expectation from government that all children will return to school in September and that most will be able to slot in and a handful will need extra support. But she says this is definitely not the reality.
“The philosophy is that pupils need to get back on a trajectory so they can get their exam results. But this is going to be more difficult for the poorest children who have lost three months of education.
“We believe all children will need support on returning to school and that disadvantaged children who have suffered the most will need even greater support – and more than just a few hours of the curriculum.
“I think it is good that there will be money available to support pupils who need it, but schools need to be able to decide what to spend it on and start with the wellbeing and physical and mental needs of children before we can even start looking at the learning gaps.”
Children, particularly younger ones, need familiarity and a friendly face they know." Nansi Ellis, assistant general secretary for education policy and research at the National Education Union
Ellis told HuffPost UK that she has serious misgivings about the government’s plans to get newly qualified graduates or tutors to provide the catchup learning rather than teachers – particularly when there are supply teachers who have been furloughed who are already known to pupils at some schools.
“Not only will graduates and tutors not know the children, they won’t know the school or system,” she said. “Children, particularly younger ones, need familiarity and a friendly face they know.
“Education is about relationships and if children are not comfortable in that relationship, they won’t be able to learn and won’t open up to a stranger.”
The Department for Education told HuffPost UK that the Year 7 premium for pupils was always due to end following the introduction of the National Funding Formula, as it includes a weighting for low prior attainment which replaces the need for a separate premium. It said this was not a new position and had not been put towards the £1 billion Covid catch up package.
A spokesperson said: “We are working to get all pupils back in the classroom in September because we know being in school is vital for their education and wellbeing.
“As we do so, we are asking schools to give the mental health of pupils serious attention as they return to school as well as helping their pupils to catch up academically.
“To support schools, we are providing online teaching materials, videos and webinars to schools and colleges produced by experts and charities.
“Through our new National Funding Formula, schools attract additional money for their pupils with lower attainment who need extra support to catch up.
“Our £1bn Covid catch up package will support pupils who may have fallen behind as a result of coronavirus, consisting of £650m to help pupils make up for the lost teaching time and £350m to make high quality tutoring available to those who need it most.”
This article originally appeared on HuffPost and has been updated.