FE snubbed in 'corrected' DfE £1bn catch-up plans

The government is facing fierce criticism for snubbing colleges from its £1 billion Covid-19 “catch-up” package after appearing to include them and other 16 to 19 providers in their initial plans.

Prime minister Boris Johnson and education secretary Gavin Williamson have today launched the funding in a bid to help school pupils catch-up on the teaching time they have lost because of the coronavirus pandemic.

But it has been announced under a cloud of confusion and frustration.

Last night the Department for Education initially won praise from the likes of the Association of Colleges after telling the press that £700 million of the funding would be “shared across early years, schools and 16 to 19 providers over the 2020/21 academic” to “lift educational outcomes”.

But two hours later the DfE sent out a correction which removed the inclusion of early years and 16 to 19 providers and reduced this part of the fund down to £650 million.

The other part of the package is a £350 million national tutoring scheme “specifically for the most disadvantaged” – which was originally set at £300 million.

David Hughes, chief executive of the AoC, said the government is “right to take action to help school pupils catch up for lost time” but it is “indefensible to overlook the needs of the 700,000 in colleges”.

“I expect their exclusion from this announcement to be followed rapidly by clarification on the funding and support for college students,” he added.

Bill Watkin, chief executive of the Sixth Form Colleges Association, said the last-minute exclusion of FE providers was “unjustifiable”.

“Our understanding was that 16 to 19 providers would be able to access at least some of the proposed Covid catch up support.

“However, today’s announcement specifically excludes 16 to 19 providers so we await further clarification on what elements of the package and related funding our members will be able to access.”

He added: “Young people of all ages have shown great resilience in response to the Covid crisis; it would be entirely unjustifiable to exclude sixth form students from the package announced today.”

Toby Perkins, Labour’s shadow apprenticeships and lifelong learning minister, told FE Week the “very fact” that FE was included and has now been excluded is “very revealing about the governments entire attitude towards post-16 vocational education”.

“If this means that there is a plan for schools but not for FE then that would be an unforgivable disgrace,” he added.

“But if in fact what it shows us is that colleges are simply an afterthought and whilst having time for a plan for schools they have not got around to one for the FE sector then that would expose exactly the extent to which FE is not a priority under this government.”

Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, welcomed the package of support for schools but said that he was “also concerned to see that there is now apparently no funding for early years or 16 to 19 provision, when these sectors are absolutely vital to the future of children and young people”.

He added: “It remains frustrating that we haven’t had the opportunity to discuss any of this with the government ahead of this announcement and that we once again find ourselves having to piece together the detail.”

Pressure has been mounting on the government in recent weeks to produce a proper plan for helping students catch up with the teaching time they have lost after 12 weeks of lockdown.

Meg Hillier, chair of the influential public accounts committee of MPs, accused Williamson of being “asleep on the job” while Johnson has faced repeated questions on the issue during his coronavirus briefings.

Johnson said today that the £1 billion package will help “headteachers to provide extra support to children who have fallen behind while out of school”, adding that he is “determined to do everything I can to get all children back in school from September”.

Williamson claimed the package will “make sure that every young person, no matter their age or where they live, gets the education, opportunities and outcomes they deserve, by spending it on measures proven to be effective, particularly for those who are most disadvantaged”.

The DfE said further guidance will be published “shortly”.