Children are generally making progress to recover the learning they lost during the COVID-19 pandemic following action taken by the Department for Education (DfE), but disadvantaged1 pupils remain further behind the expected level of attainment than other pupils, according to a new report by the National Audit Office (NAO).

The NAO’s report Education recovery in schools in England shows variation in how far and how quickly pupils have recovered learning.2 In summer 2021, pupils were on average 2.2, 0.9 and 1.2 months behind the expected level of attainment in primary maths, primary reading and secondary reading respectively. This compared with 3.6, 1.8 and 1.5 months in autumn 2020.

Learning loss for disadvantaged pupils has been consistently greater than for pupils overall and, as a result, the gap in attainment has grown since 2019. The disadvantage gap index (a measure of the difference in attainment between disadvantaged and other pupils) at the end of primary school was 3.23 in 2022, compared with 2.91 in 2019. Left unaddressed, lost learning may lead to increased disadvantage and significant missing future earnings for those affected.

Disruption to schooling during the COVID-19 pandemic led to lost learning for many pupils, particularly disadvantaged children. DfE’s response was to implement a £3.5 billion package of measures, extending across four academic years (2020/21 to 2023/24), to support education recovery in schools.3 The main interventions were: the National Tutoring Programme (NTP); and extra direct funding for schools in the form of the catch-up premium (a per-pupil funding allocation for all schools) in 2020/21 and the recovery premium (an allocation which for primary and secondary schools is based on the number of disadvantaged pupils they have) in subsequent years.

To get the NTP running quickly in 2020, DfE appointed the Education Endowment Foundation and Teach First to run the tuition partners and academic mentors schemes respectively. For 2021/22, DfE appointed a single contractor, Randstad, to manage both schemes. In September 2021, DfE introduced a school-led tutoring scheme to the NTP, in response to feedback from schools that logistical factors (such as the amount of management time needed) were deterring them from engaging with the existing tutoring schemes. For 2022/23, DfE decided not to extend its contract with Randstad and to allocate all NTP funding directly to schools.

By the end of 2021/22, pupils had started 2.5 million courses under the NTP.4 Take-up of the NTP tuition partners and academic mentors schemes in 2021/22 was lower than DfE expected, but school-led tutoring more than made up the shortfall. In 2021/22, the number of courses started was 45% of DfE’s target for tuition partners and 65% for academic mentors. School-led tutoring proved more popular with schools than the other schemes and accounted for 81% of all the tuition courses started in 2021/22. More than 1.3 million pupils (one in five) received school-led tutoring. Overall, 87% of schools took part in some form of tutoring in 2021/22.

DfE set out to focus the NTP on disadvantaged children, although schools were free to choose which pupils would benefit most from support. In 2021/22, around half of the pupils receiving tutoring under the NTP were disadvantaged. The proportion was 51% for the tuition partners scheme, short of DfE’s target of 65% for that scheme, and 47% for school-led tutoring.

DfE gave schools freedom to decide how to use the catch-up and recovery premiums and has not routinely collected information on how this funding was used. It requires schools to publish a statement each year explaining how they plan to spend the recovery premium and demonstrating that their approach is informed by evidence on what will help pupils catch up on lost learning.

The NAO recommends that DfE should further develop its approach to monitoring progress towards achieving its ambitions for pupils’ attainment, and report regularly on progress. DfE should also model the impact of withdrawing the subsidy for the NTP and the recovery premium after 2023/24, to assess whether tutoring in schools is financially sustainable given DfE’s objective for tutoring to become embedded in the school system.

“The Department for Education needed to take action to support pupils to make up the learning they lost during the COVID-19 pandemic and reach children who had been disproportionately affected by the disruption to schooling.

“Despite the progress that is being made, it is concerning that learning loss for disadvantaged pupils remains greater than for other pupils. It is vital that the Department maintains its focus on education recovery in the coming years to help all children to catch up and to close the attainment gap between disadvantaged and other pupils.”

Gareth Davies, the head of the NAO

Read the full report

Education recovery in schools in England

Notes for editors

Press notices and reports are available from the date of publication on the NAO website. Hard copies can be obtained by using the relevant links on our website.

  1. Disadvantaged pupils are those who have been eligible for free school meals at any point in the past six years, and may also include children who have ever been looked after by their local authority.
  2. The Department commissioned Renaissance Learning and the Education Policy Institute to estimate the impact of the disruption to schooling on pupils’ academic development. Learning loss is estimated by comparing what pupils did achieve with what they would have achieved had they progressed at the same rate as pupils in the most recent comparable pre-pandemic period.
  3. The Department has announced total funding of £4.9 billion to address learning loss and support education recovery, covering early years, schools and education for 16- to 19-year-olds. Most of this funding (£3.5 billion) is for recovery interventions in schools, and those interventions are the focus of this report.
  4. By the end of 2021/22, pupils had started 2.5 million courses under the NTP. An individual pupil may attend more than one course on the same tutoring scheme or receive tutoring under more than one scheme.