Britain’s underfunded school catch-up plan risks seeing the UK fall behind other nations for years to come, an education chief has warned.

The amount of cash the Government has so far pledged is “derisory” and could do long-term damage to the nation’s global standing, according to Sir Peter Lampl, founder and chairman of the Sutton Trust.

“Countries compete on education. They don’t compete on battleships any more,” he told The Telegraph. 

“Countries like Holland and the US are spending an order of magnitude more than we are. We are down at the bottom end of what people are spending to get out of this mess. We need to be not at the bottom of all this, but at the top.”

Sir Peter, 74, is one of the UK’s foremost education philanthropists. He founded the social mobility charity the Sutton Trust more than two decades ago after making millions running a private equity firm.

“We already have a long tail of underachievement. Even before the pandemic, it was really serious and now it has gotten worse,” Sir Peter said. “We are behind other countries and I think that’s really important.

“We started from a very bad place and then we had a bad pandemic. Yes, the vaccine has come, but we had a lot of kids out of school for a long time, worse than other countries. We have created a situation for ourselves where the poorer kids have just fallen apart, the gap has widened enormously.”

Total planned spending per pupil in the UK

Government’s ‘half-hearted’ approach

Recent analysis by the Education Policy Institute found that the £3.1 billion of catch-up funding announced in total since the pandemic began amounts to just £310 per pupil over three years. This compares with £1,600 per pupil in the US and £2,500 per pupil in the Netherlands.

Last summer, the Sutton Trust was one of the organisations that was tasked with overseeing one of the Department for Education’s flagship catch-up policies, the National Tutoring Programme.

At the time, the Prime Minister promised to spend £350 million on a tutoring programme and said that another £650 million would be handed to schools to spend as they see fit.

When schools were closed down for a second time in January, Downing Street came under pressure to pledge more spending on catch-up and the following month, another £700 million was announced as well as an appointment of a new catch-up tsar, Sir Kevan Collins, who would spearhead the Government’s approach to lost learning.

But the appointment was short lived. Just over three months later, he resigned with great fanfare, accusing ministers of a “half-hearted” approach to helping children whose learning has been disrupted by the pandemic.

Just 24 hours after Gavin Williamson, the Education Secretary, announced a new £1.4 billion cash injection for pupil tuition and teacher training, Sir Kevan handed in his notice, warning that the current funding allocated “does not come close to meeting the scale of the challenge” posed by months of school disruption.

It represented just one tenth of the £15 billion funding that Sir Kevan said was necessary to help students catch up, and said it had left him with “no option” but to quit.

Sir Peter agrees with Sir Kevan that the amount of money the Government has put behind the catch-up effort is “peanuts”, adding: “You need big money to turn that around. What’s going on now is an absolute disaster. This kind of money is ludicrous.”

Abandoning children a ‘false economy’

He explained that failing to invest properly in children’s education at this stage was a false economy, since it would end up costing the nation far more in the long term if it was not properly addressed.

“Kids are in really bad shape now. If we don’t do anything, they will stay there,” he said. “We will have a lot of kids who don’t have qualifications that can get them jobs, which I think is very serious.

“Once kids get behind, it’s very difficult for them to catch up to a level where they are productive, so it’s really important that we move quickly on this. We all know the kind of jobs that unskilled people do really don’t exist – there aren’t a lot of people digging ditches any more. You are going to have kids who are not employable.

“If you do something and put some serious resources behind it like other countries are doing, you can alleviate that.”

An analysis by the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) found that school closures could cost each British pupil up to £40,000 in lost earnings over the course of their lifetime.

The effects of the pandemic on learning could result in the UK’s 8.7 million school-age children collectively missing out on £350 billion of income during their working lives, their study found.

The moral case to help children

In its report, the IFS warned that a “massive injection” of resources was needed to help pupils catch up on lost learning.

It encourages ministers to consider options to increase learning time once the pandemic is under control, including allowing students to repeat a whole school year, lengthening the school day or extending the academic year.

For Sir Peter, who has given away £50 million of his own self-made fortune to help boost social mobility in Britain, providing funding for catch up is a moral decision as well as an economic one.

“You aren’t giving kids a chance, which is pretty horrific,” he said. “The work we have done at the Sutton Trust is that if you give kids a chance, they can surprise you. But they’ve got to be given a chance.”

A government spokesman said: “We have committed to an ambitious, and long-term education recovery plan, including an investment to date of over £3bn and a significant expansion of our tutoring programme, to support children and young people to make up for learning lost during the pandemic.”

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