Northern Ireland news

Catch-up programme may not be reaching poorest children

The National Audit Office (NAO) found fewer than half of the pupils who started to receive tuition so far were from low-income families

A flagship catch-up programme for pupils affected by months of school closures may not be reaching the most disadvantaged children, an audit report has warned.

Spending watchdog the National Audit Office (NAO) found fewer than half of the pupils who started to receive tuition so far were from low-income families.

Demand in disadvantaged areas has "outstripped supply" as hundreds of schools have still not received help.

As part of the UK government's National Tutoring Programme (NTP), academic mentors are being placed in schools serving disadvantaged communities to provide intensive catch-up support.

Teach First placed mentors in 1,100 schools by February, but received requests from 1,789 eligible schools, meaning more than 600 disadvantaged schools requesting a mentor had not received one.

In Northern Ireland, Education Minister Peter Weir has said the focus now must be on educational recovery which will be critical to children's future prospects.

With executive support, he intends to invest in "necessary resources" to help pupils address any disruption to their learning caused by the pandemic.

The Engage Programme also provides funding to schools to help disadvantaged pupils catch up with learning lost during periods of lockdown.

The amount of money available varies depending on school size and the proportion of pupils entitled to free school meals.

Both literacy and numeracy support and mental health interventions are provided.

As part of the NTP, schools in Britain are being offered subsidised tuition from an approved list of organisations offering one-to-one and small-group tutoring.

The NAO report found that of the 125,200 children allocated a tutoring place by February, 41,100 had started to receive tuition - of whom 44 per cent were eligible for pupil premium funding.

This raised questions over the extent to which the scheme will reach the most disadvantaged children, the NAO said.

NAO head Gareth Davies said the disruption caused by the pandemic was an unprecedented challenge for the UK's Department for Education and schools.

"During the early months, the department gave schools considerable discretion in how they supported their pupils, which reduced demands on schools but contributed to wide variation in the education and support that children received," he said.

"The evidence shows that children's learning and development has been held back by the disruption to normal schooling. It is crucial that the department monitors the impact of its catch-up arrangements, particularly on disadvantaged children, and acts on the results."

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