It has been a difficult few years for schools. From the closures and exam cancellations of the last two years, to the ongoing disruption of staff and pupil absence this year, compounded by a spiralling cost of living crisis. There has been little relief on the horizon.

Dealing with this series of crises has taken a toll in many senses. On the mental health and wellbeing of both students and staff, on the educational development of pupils, and on the financial status of schools. Supporting pupils during the pandemic with food, IT equipment, learning resources and pastoral support involved significant outlays, not all of which was covered by extra government funding. These issues have particularly impacted schools in more deprived areas, whose students have faced greater challenges than elsewhere and have required more support.

Helping students recover from an unprecedented hit to their learning has also been a strain. The National Tutoring Programme was set up rapidly to address issues of learning loss through high quality and well-evidenced small group tutoring. However, especially in year 2, the NTP has faced practical and administrative challenges, including the supply of tutors, as well as integrating tutoring sessions with work in the classroom. This has meant the programme has not reached as many young people as has been hoped, particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds.

As revealed in our polling in January, schools have also struggled with staff and pupil absences due to ongoing waves of Covid, in particular the Omicron variant, before and after Christmas. This has meant schools struggling to find supply teachers, as well as combining classes and having classes taken by non-school staff.

In Spring 2021, the government’s Education Recovery Commissioner Sir Kevan Collins delivered an ambitious £15 billion recovery plan, reflecting the scale of the challenge to schools. However, to date, the government have only enacted a fraction of that plan. Our annual polling of teachers, released today, reveals the impacts of this decision. 57% of school senior leaders report that catch up funding has not been sufficient in their schools this year. While this is down from 65% in 2021, just 38% reported that funding has been enough.

Particularly striking has been the emerging gap between primary and secondary schools. 68% of primary leaders report that funding has been insufficient, compared with 38% of secondary leaders. This gap was just 10 percentage points in 2021; now it is 30. This has had knock-on consequences in schools. Over half (51%) of primary heads report needing to cut teaching assistants for financial reasons, 35% support staff, and 32% IT equipment. In contrast, 28% of secondary heads report cutting teaching assistants, 31% support staff and 20% IT equipment.

In the wake of a pandemic that deprived many children of enriching experiences outside the home, 25% of primary schools reporting they have had to cut trips and outings, and 20% sports and extracurricular activities, is also of concern.

There are a variety of reasons potentially lying behind this. Evidence has shown a greater impact of the pandemic on younger pupils, particularly in maths, which may require more intensive support than at secondary. Because older children are more likely to be vaccinated, attendance levels have bounced back more at secondaries than primaries. Primary schools also tend to be smaller, are less likely to sit in Multi Academy Trusts, and thus may be more vulnerable to the escalating energy bills and inflation associated with the cost of living crisis.

Given the evidence of growing attainment gaps in schools, it is particularly concerning that many schools report using their Pupil Premium funding to plug gaps elsewhere in their budget, rather than targeting the funding at disadvantaged pupils. A third of headteachers report using pupil premium funding to plug gaps in their budget, again with primaries more likely than secondaries to report this. This is similar to 2021 (34%), but up substantially from 23% in 2019 before the pandemic. 36% of heads in the most disadvantaged schools said yes, compared to 27% in the least disadvantaged.

Despite the well-documented challenges facing the NTP, today’s polling also shows that one-to-one and small group tutoring has been the highest priority for pupil premium spending in 34% of secondary schools this year, doubling in the last 12 months, from 17%, and more than treble the pre-pandemic figure of 10%. Given the potential of tutoring to help attainment and close disadvantage gaps, it is vital that the next phase of the NTP gets the balance between flexibility, quality and reach right.

This evidence shows that the double whammy of the pandemic and rising energy bills and inflation is putting a squeeze on schools, particularly in primary schools, during a crucial time for this generation of young people. Beyond the National Tutoring Programme, the government needs to invest more in education recovery, to ease the burden on schools and reduce the long term harms of the pandemic on young people’s life chances.

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