Colleges, training providers, and schools handed back 15 per cent – £28 million – of cash earmarked for Covid catch-up tutoring in the first two years of the scheme for 16- to 19-year-olds, blaming rigid eligibility rules and stop-start policy.
FE Week analysis of new 16-19 tuition fund spend figures shows that of the total £187.5 million allocated to over 2,000 education providers across 2020/21 and 2021/22, £159.5 million was spent.
Almost 300 providers with an allocation failed to spend a penny over that period and returned all funding to the Department for Education.
The DfE said it was allowed to reinvest the clawed-back tutoring cash within the department to support other 16 to 19 and wider education funding pressures, rather than handing it back to the Treasury.
A further £110 million and £112 million have been distributed to spend in 2022/23 and 2023/24 respectively for the tuition fund, but clawback figures for those years are not yet available.
Sector leaders have called for the scheme to be extended again beyond this year but with more freedom over how the funding can be spent.
Strict rules stifle tutoring plans
The 16-19 tuition fund was announced in July 2020 for providers to hold “small group tutoring” for 16 to 19 students whose studies had been disrupted by the pandemic.
But colleges, training providers, and sixth forms that opted into the fund had just weeks to design, staff and implement schemes for a limited group of eligible students.
Providers could use the funding to support students in groups of up to seven in subjects disrupted by the pandemic, but only if they had not achieved a GCSE grade 4 in English and/or maths or have a grade 4 or above and were from an economically disadvantaged background.
The DfE did eventually expand the eligibility to students who didn’t achieve a grade 6 at GCSE in those subjects, but not until the 2022/23 academic year.
Funding could be used for staff costs to deliver catch-up tuition but not for non-staff costs such as diagnostic tools, room hire, equipment, laptops, transport, or stationery.
James Kewin, deputy chief executive of the Sixth Form Colleges Association, said the £28 million underspend “largely reflects the narrowness of the eligibility criteria in the first two years of the scheme and restrictions on how the funding could be spent”.
“It certainly does not reflect a lack of need – £100 million per year was never going to be sufficient to meet the needs of 1.2 million young people – and most colleges could have spent their allocations several times over if they had been able to target the funding at all students that needed additional support,” he added.
The DfE allowed providers to roll over any underspent funding from 2020/21 to 2021/22 after recognising the ongoing impact lockdowns were having.
But an independent evaluation report of the scheme, published by the DfE in July 2023, said education leaders described how other ineligible students may have a higher level of need for catch-up support for reasons that cannot be captured in the eligibility criteria. For example, those who experienced bereavement, didn’t have a supportive family, or space to study at home.
Spending varied by provider type
FE Week’s analysis shows schools with sixth forms spent 76 per cent of their allocations, while university technical colleges (UTCs) spent 78 per cent.
Kate Ambrosi, the director of education and innovation at the Baker Dearing Educational Trust, which represents UTCs, said sixth formers affected by the pandemic require innovative and specialised interventions, adding that the development of such interventions was “stifled by the original limits on how the funding could be spent”.
UTCs spent their tuition fund cash to pay staff for weekend, after-school or holiday intervention classes with small groups of post-16 students, she told FE Week, adding that the technical colleges would like to see the fund continue but with relaxed rules.
Almost 80 independent training providers opted into the tuition fund in the first two years, with combined allocations hitting £9.1 million. This provider group spent £7.25 million (79 per cent) of their funding.
Simon Ashworth, director of policy at the Association of Employment and Learning Providers, said his members reported that the criteria attached to the funding are too rigid still, despite being loosened recently.
For example, tuition hours had to sit outside planned hours, with some students unable or unwilling to do so.He added that the tuition fund continued a “worrying trend of stop-start policy” in the skills sector.
“While the fund has been available for three years, it was initially announced as a one-year pot, with further annual extensions announced. Had providers known the pot was for three years, they could have invested resources with more confidence. Short-termism and stop-start policymaking continue to limit potential.”
General FE colleges and sixth-form colleges spent 87 per cent and 86 per cent of their total allocations, respectively.
Activate Learning, which runs seven colleges, received one of the biggest allocations of over £2 million across 2020/21 and 2021/22. The group handed back around £620,000 after those years but told FE Week the funding had a significant impact.
A spokesperson said: “Using the funding, we’ve introduced specific roles to help track and manage our students’ development and progress, added in additional tuition groups to provide extra help and support, and worked with external providers to put in place peer-to-peer tutoring, all of which have seen proven success in boosting student achievement.
“We recognise that we weren’t able to utilise the funding as much as we would have hoped in the first year, however since then we have used the majority of the funding made available to us and in the past two years, we’ve spent all of the funding we’ve had access to.”
Julian Gravatt, deputy chief executive of the Association of Colleges, said the tuition fund is a “helpful part of the offer to students, many of whom are still behind where they could be because of lost time at school during the pandemic”.
He said the DfE hasn’t yet publicly confirmed that the tuition fund will stop in July 2024, adding that “there is a case for continuing it as part of the collective effort to raise student English and maths achievement”.
A DfE spokesperson said the department is evaluating both the National Tutoring Programme and 16-19 tuition fund which will “help inform decisions on how best to support students going forward”.
“We will provide more information on succession planning in early 2024,” the spokesperson added.