The cost of learning in the pandemic: 'One child came back to school and had forgotten how to write'

  • Natalie Gray reports for ITV News Anglia on how one school is trying to make up ground

A headteacher says some children returned to school after lockdown having "forgotten how to write", as a major new report warned of the long-term impact of the pandemic on education.

The Public Accounts Committee (PAC) reported a "generation of children" could face lower prospects as a result of Covid-19 and the effects of months of learning from home - with disadvantaged pupils hit hardest, widening an already significant attainment gap.

It has urged the government to take faster and more effective action to allow pupils to catch up on the learning they missed.

At North Denes Primary School in Great Yarmouth, Norfolk - where almost half of pupils come from disadvantaged backgrounds - headteacher Debbie Whiting has seen the damage of the pandemic years at first hand.

She said: "During lockdown, education suffered greatly, so children are behind and we're catching up slowly.

"Writing suffered massively because it's something that has to be modelled by the teacher and explained, it's not something that children enjoy doing.

"They need the teaching, input and the feedback that you get in person.

"We had one child who cried when he came back and said 'I've forgotten how to write'.

"It's really tricky."

What does the Public Accounts Committee report say about the impact of the pandemic?

  • Gap in attainment between disadvantaged pupils may take a decade to return to pre-pandemic levels;

  • Schools may not be able to afford to provide catch-up tutoring for pupils once the government withdraws its subsidy;

  • Without urgent government action, the pandemic will continue "damaging the prospects of a generation of children and entrenching disadvantage".

The PAC report showed the so-called "disadvantage gap" between pupils widened in 2020 and 2021 and there are concerns it could take another decade for the gap to be narrowed to pre-pandemic levels.

At North Denes, a fifth of the school's 380 pupils do not speak English as a first language and almost half (47%) of its students are eligible for the pupil premium grant - funding to improve outcomes for disadvantaged children.

The school also has its own food bank and provides every child with toast and juice for breakfast.

North Denes Primary School has its own food bank and provides pupils with breakfast each day. Credit: ITV News Anglia

Ms Whiting said learning remotely in another language was "really difficult" for pupils without English as a first language.

Remote learning also posed problems for families without the space or technology to work at home.

"In a lot of households where families found it difficult, they didn't do it," the headteacher said.

"They were playing computer games or sitting at home not engaging with other people and probably being quite bored."

In order to allow children to catch up on the education they missed, the government introduced the National Tutoring Programme (NTP) in November 2020.

However, the Department for Education (DfE) has reduced the subsidies for the programme from 75% in 2021/22 to 60% this year, before a further reduction to 50% in 2023/24.

Schools then pay for the rest of the programme - meaning they will meet the remaining 50% of the cost in 2023/24.

The PAC report said it was “not confident” that schools would be able to afford to provide the tutoring required to support all pupils who need it once the government withdrew its subsidy.

The Department for Education said it "remains committed to addressing the attainment gap." Credit: ITV News Anglia

North Denes Primary School has tried to use the funding, but Ms Whiting said there were "lots of strings attached" which made it difficult.

"If I could make changes, I would just say 'give us the money' and not say we've then got to match it, because that's really difficult.

"It's all very well having some money but if you've then got to put in a percentage yourself, then that could be the salary of a classroom assistant for example."

The headteacher added that the "overcrowded curriculum" must take into account the time needed for children to catch up on the learning they missed.

Ms Whiting also highlighted that teachers at the school had been on strike to call for more education funding, not to ask for pay rises.

A DfE spokesperson said: “We are conscious of the effect the pandemic has had on pupils’ education which is why we have made £5bn available for education recovery.

“Despite the effect of the pandemic, England came fourth out of 43 countries that tested children of the same age in the PIRLS international survey of the reading ability of nine and 10-year-olds.

“We remain committed to addressing the attainment gap which is why the National Tutoring Programme is targeted at the most disadvantaged students and has had over three million course starts to date, backed by more than £1bn investment.”

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