Background to the report

The closure of schools to most children between March and July 2020, and the associated switch to remote learning, was unprecedented. It formed an important part of the wider effort to reduce transmission of COVID-19 by means of a national ‘lockdown’. The change had a major impact on schools and children, both those who continued to attend school and those who learnt remotely, and their parents or carers. It raised concerns about the potential effect on children’s education and well‑being, and many observers believed that vulnerable and disadvantaged children, in particular, would be adversely affected.

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During this period the Department for Education (the Department) had to deal with significant operational challenges, particularly in the weeks immediately before and after the national lockdown began, which tested its capacity and resilience. These challenges included: dealing with uncertain and fast-moving circumstances as the pandemic evolved; managing with higher levels of staff absence as a result of the virus; adapting to new ways of working, including the shift to remote working; putting in place arrangements where key staff worked for extended periods to cover evenings and weekends; and identifying priorities across the whole range of its policy responsibilities.

Scope of the report

This report examines the Department’s support for children’s education during the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic between March and July 2020, and its action to help children catch up on the learning they lost during that period. We focused particularly on disadvantaged and vulnerable children. Also, where appropriate, the report refers to the additional guidance, support or requirements that the Department continued to roll out for the 2020/21 academic year. We did not assess the Department’s actions during the second major period of disrupted schooling that began in January 2021.

The report covers:

  • the Department’s overall response to the pandemic (Part One);
  • the support provided for children’s learning, both in school and remotely (Part Two);
  • and the impact of disrupted schooling on children (Part Three).

Report conclusions

The COVID-19 pandemic presented the Department with an unprecedented challenge in the form of wholesale disruption to schooling across the country. With no pre-existing plan for dealing with disruption on this scale, the Department’s approach was largely reactive. In the early months of the pandemic, it allowed schools considerable discretion in how they supported in-school and remote learning. This helped to reduce the demands on schools at a very difficult time, but also contributed to wide variation in the education and support that children received.

The Department took action to support schools and pupils, including ensuring that schools remained open for vulnerable children and funding online resources for those learning at home. Aspects of its response, however, could have been done better or more quickly, and therefore been more effective in mitigating the learning pupils lost as a result of the disruption. For example, it could have set clear expectations for in-school and remote learning earlier and addressed the barriers that disadvantaged children faced more effectively. It is crucial that the Department now takes swift and effective action, including to learn wider lessons from its COVID-19 response, and to ensure that the catch-up learning programme is effective and reaches the children who have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic, such as those who are vulnerable and disadvantaged.

Read more about our work on the government’s response to the coronavirus pandemic.

“The disruption caused by the COVID-19 pandemic was an unprecedented challenge for the 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.

“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.”

Gareth Davies, the head of the NAO


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