Boris Johnson’s promises of a “massive catch-up operation” for children in England who have missed out on months of schooling have been met with surprise and scepticism from school leaders and local authorities, who say they have not been consulted on the practicalities of any plan.
Under pressure to act from critics including Anne Longfield, the children’s commissioner for England, and MPs in his own party, the prime minister said on Wednesday: “We’ll be doing a huge amount of catch-up for pupils over the summer months” and promised an announcement by the education secretary, Gavin Williamson, next week.
The catch-up scheme is likely to include vouchers for online tutoring through existing organisations, and the use of volunteers enrolled in programmes offering classes and activities over the summer and following months – modelled on the popular NHS volunteer scheme launched in March.
But Johnson’s announcement was greeted with some surprise by teaching unions, governors and local authorities in England, who said they had not been given any insight or been asked to contribute to formal discussions of the government’s plans.
Judith Blake, chair of the Local Government Association’s children and young people board, said: “It is vital that children do not fall further behind in their development. With the summer holidays rapidly approaching, we are calling on the government to urgently start a conversation with local authorities and schools to provide clarity on what exactly it is proposing to help children to catch up on any schoolwork they may have missed out on during lockdown.”
Local authorities maintain more than half of England’s state primary schools, and retain important safeguarding roles, making them potentially important partners in extra summer activities.
Mary Bousted, joint general secretary of the National Education Union (NEU), said: “We have not had any briefings from the Department for Education about the catch-up plan – we suspect that a lot of civil servants are running around madly at the moment trying desperately to stitch something together that sounds feasible.
“The problem is of the government’s own making; Boris Johnson and Gavin Williamson relied on the false hope that social distancing would be relaxed by now, so that primary schools could then reopen to all children. This was always unrealistic.”
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The NEU has published its own recovery plan calling for councils to offer summer holiday clubs for children and young people, with those eligible for free school meals funded by the government.
School leaders say that with only a few weeks remaining until the end of the school year, there are logistical difficulties in vetting staff and arranging sites for any summer schools to take place.
Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said: “It’s quite a big ask to do that in a short space of time. There will be some examples of schools where various activities have taken place over the summer, but there won’t be a tradition of catch-up classes in the summer holidays.”
Barton warned that a major difficulty will be in ensuring that it benefits pupils who need it most: “The risk with anything in the summer is that the children who come to those are perhaps those who least need those activities.”
Emma Knights, chief executive of the National Governance Association (NGA), which represents school governors, said it has been asking the DfE about the provision of summer activity programmes for several weeks.
“As well as targeted catch-up tuition, NGA is in support of a broader programme of summer activities which would be run by local authorities, charities, youth services and a range of other providers, but this needs to be properly funded by the government.
“We recognise that finding the staff and resources to organise and deliver these activities, and within the Covid-19 guidance, may not be practical in the short time remaining before the summer holidays. Time is of the essence,” Knights said.
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