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PM’s £1bn ‘catch-up’ plan criticised for leaving out nursery and college pupils

Steve Parsons

By Eleanor Busby, PA Education Correspondent

Boris Johnson’s £1 billion plan to help pupils catch up with learning has come under fire from education leaders, as the UK’s chief medical officers have agreed to downgrade the coronavirus alert level from four to three.

Head teachers say they were not consulted on the details of the scheme which will see the most disadvantaged children in England given access to funds to pay for tutors, while the majority of the funding will be shared across schools to help pupils from all backgrounds affected by the lockdown.

College and nursery leaders have criticised the Government for leaving their pupils out after it announced that £650 million would only be given to state primary and secondary schools for the 2020-21 academic year.

A further £350 million will be spent on a one-year subsidised national tutoring programme targeted at the most disadvantaged pupils in schools.

But sector leaders say the funding will not reach young children in nurseries and college students who are most “in need of support” amid the pandemic.

It came as the UK’s chief medical officers agreed to downgrade the coronavirus alert level from four to three, after a “steady” and continuing decrease in cases in all four nations.

Localised outbreaks of Covid-19 are still “likely” to occur, the advisers warned, and the virus remains in general circulation.

But the downgrading – recommended by the Joint Biosecurity Centre (JBC) – means transmission of coronavirus is no longer considered to be “high or rising exponentially”.

Health Secretary Matt Hancock said moving to a lower alert level was a “big moment” for the UK, and showed the country was getting “back on her feet”.

On the school funding announcement, David Hughes, chief executive of the Association of Colleges (AoC), said it was “indefensible” to overlook the needs of students in tens of thousands of colleges across the country.

Meanwhile, Purnima Tanuku, chief executive of National Day Nurseries Association (NDNA), has accused the Government of failing young children “who are most in need of support in their early development”.

David Laws, executive chair of the Education Policy Institute (EPI) think tank, added that the catch-up plan was “poorly targeted” and unlikely to prevent a large increase in the disadvantaged gap.

The former Liberal Democrat minister added: “We are also concerned that there seems to be no extra financial support for early years or sixth form students – these phases are crucially important, yet they have suffered from persistent funding neglect over a sustained period of time.”

It came as schools minister Nick Gibb said it was the Government’s “clear intention” to have all children back in schools across England by September.

Concerns have also been raised about the ability of some schools to pay towards the tutoring scheme amid funding pressures already facing schools.

Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL), added that it was “frustrating” that the union had not been involved in any discussions ahead of the Government announcement.

Kevin Courtney, joint general secretary of the National Education Union (NEU), said: “If social distancing is still required in September, a full-time return to education means Government will have to find extra education staff and extra teaching spaces.

“The Government must urgently engage with unions and others in the sector to plan for such a return.”

Speaking on Sky News, Mr Gibb said the Government wants to ensure that no pupils face any long-term detriment to their education as a result of Covid-19.

He added: “We are working with the school sector, we’re taking advice and we give schools plenty of notice in time to plan for that reopening in September.

“Of course, we’re working on other contingency plans but the clear intention is that we’ll have all children back in school in September.”

Mr Gibb said the funding for schools will begin to be distributed from the start of the academic year – and head teachers will have the discretion to decide on how the catch-up funding is spent.

In Northern Ireland, most pupils are set for a return to education in the autumn after ministers agreed to cut the social distancing measure to one metre.

But Mr Hancock, speaking at the daily Downing Street briefing on Thursday, said the same would not happen in England until the virus was “under control”.

His comments came as the Government prepares to reveal the latest UK Covid-19 reproduction number – referred to as the R value – which will be used to guide ministers on whether further lockdown lifting can take place.

Pubs and restaurants, as well as hairdressers and beauty parlours, are hoping to be given the green light to reopen on July 4.

The Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) last week confirmed the UK rate was between 0.7 and 0.9, meeting the Government’s target of keeping it below 1.0.

Meanwhile, the Government on Thursday was forced into an embarrassing U-turn over its tracing app, announcing that it was ditching ambitions to develop its own software and instead will work with tech giants Apple and Google on a new, improved design.

Mr Hancock said developers had been working on both the app created by the NHS’s digital arm, NHSX, and the design offered by Apple and Google since May, but the NHSX app had hit a “technical barrier” during testing on the Isle of Wight.

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