Lost learning: £1.5bn for Covid recovery? More like £30bn says IFS

Written by: Pete Henshaw | Published:
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The £1.5bn so far allocated to lost learning recovery during the Covid-19 pandemic is “highly unlikely to be sufficient” – with a more realistic figure being £30bn.

While government funding to support so-called “catch-up” learning have been unprecedented, the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) says it is nowhere near enough.

In a commentary, published on Monday (February 1), Luke Sibieta, a research fellow at the IFS, sets out a clear argument for much higher investment in Covid recovery for education and floats a number of radical solutions to increase learning time, such as extending the school day or academic year, summer schools, or mass repetition of whole school years.

He points out that by the February half-term, a majority of children will have lost at least half a year of normal, in-person schooling – which amounts to five per cent of their total schooling.

He points to emerging evidence showing that this is already contributing to lower educational progress and skills development, particularly for disadvantaged pupils given problems such as the digital divide and a lack of study space at home.

He estimates that one of the impacts of the pandemic will be lost future earnings for the Covid generation of around £350bn. This amounts to £40,000 less income over the lifetime of an average earner.

And again, disadvantaged pupils will likely bear the brunt of this as better off families have been better able to mitigate the impact of the pandemic on their children’s learning.

The observation states: “There is the clear possibility that the effects of lost learning could be neutralised for those from well-off families and the long-run negative effects could be concentrated among those from disadvantaged backgrounds. The net result would be a widening of existing inequalities. These are hard and costly to close once children reach adulthood.”

When talking about “catch-up”, the commentary notes that half a year of schooling normally costs around £30bn across the UK (£25bn in England, £2.8bn in Scotland, £1.4bn in Wales and £1bn in Northern Ireland) and argues that this figure should be used as a benchmark. Mr Sibieta makes a case for this kind of expenditure by pointing out that projected lost earnings of £350bn would mean lost tax revenues of £100bn.

The observation adds: “I am not necessarily advocating for an automatic increase in school spending of £30bn, but correcting a loss on this scale certainly requires a massive injection of resources. In total, governments across the UK have allocated about £1.5bn towards catch-up. This is tiny in comparison with the scale of the problem.

“The amount of extra resources for catch-up should be far higher. To prevent inequalities from widening, the distribution also needs to be heavily skewed towards more disadvantaged pupils and/or pupils who have seen the biggest losses in educational progress. There is strong evidence for the positive impact of school resources on educational attainment and long-run outcomes.”

Mr Sibieta argues that more radical solutions will be needed than have currently been put in place to help pupils recover their lost learning.

He writes: “We need to think of big and radical ways to increase learning time. This could be extending the school year, lengthening the school day, mass repetition of whole school years, or summer schools. And there is sound evidence that increasing instructional time can yield positive effects.

“Given we’re trying to compensate for half a year of lost normal schooling, such measures would likely be necessary for a few years. I am not in a position to advocate for any of these options. Indeed, schools and teachers will probably have a much better idea of what is possible with the right resources. But everything should be on the table and we should be engaged in a national debate about the merits and feasibility of all of them.”

It comes after the Welsh government said that it would consider the possible opening of schools during the summer to support recovery efforts.

Speaking this week, Mr Sibieta said: “A loss of over half a year of normal schooling is likely to have far-reaching long-run consequences. We will all be less productive, poorer, have less money to spend on public services, more unequal and we may be less happy and healthy as a result. The inescapable conclusion is that lost learning represents a gigantic long-term risk for future prosperity, the public finances, the future path of inequality and wellbeing.

"We therefore need a policy response that is appropriate to the scale of the problem. One useful benchmark is the £30bn it normally costs for half a year of schooling in the UK. That doesn't mean we need to spend that much. But is does strongly suggest that the £1.5bn allocated across the UK so far doesn't even start to match the scale of the challenge. A much larger policy response would allow us to consider radical and properly resourced ways to help pupils catch-up."

Responding to the IFS commentary, Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said: “The government in England is a long way short of the £30bn benchmark for catch-up support suggested by the IFS. It has invested £1bn this year on a scheme that it has over-complicated through its insistence on channelling some of that money into a subsidised tutoring programme. And it has so far mentioned only £300m for the next financial year with little detail over its plans.

“The government will need to put in place much more substantial catch-up funding to repair the damage to education caused by the pandemic, and all of this funding needs to go directly to schools and colleges.”

  • Sibieta: The crisis in lost learning calls for a massive national policy response, IFS, February 2021: http://bit.ly/3cCQkbI


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