Ministers face having to hand back more than £100 million of unspent tutoring funding to the Treasury after schools struggled to access the flagship scheme, Schools Week has learned.
Huge problems with the National Tutoring Programme (NTP) led to low take-up of its tuition partners and academic mentors arms last year. Most leaders opted instead to make use of direct school-led tutoring funding.
Schools Week understands this has resulted in an underspend of at least a sixth of the total budget for 2021-22, which will now automatically be clawed back by the Treasury.
Former schools minister Jonathan Gullis said he tried to get the underspend worked into the budget for future years to avoid the clawback.
This could have increased government subsidies next year and made the scheme more “economically viable for headteachers”, he claimed.
The underspend relates to all three routes of the programme. Gullis said the clawback could be as much as £150 million.
‘Perverse that unspent money can’t be rolled over’
However, the government is speaking to schools about how much direct tutoring funding they have used, meaning the final figure will be lower. But Schools Week understands it is expected to be more than £100 million.
Baz Ramaiah, head of policy at the Centre for Education and Youth, said the underspend was “staggering”. The money should be used to increase subsidies and extend the programme, he said.
Nick Brook, deputy general secretary of school leaders’ union NAHT, said the “most significant barrier” to providing high-quality tutoring was affordability, with tapering off this year and next.
Last year, schools had to pay between 5 and 30 per cent of the tutoring costs, depending on the route. This year they have to pay 40 per cent on all routes, and next year their expected contribution will rise to 75 per cent.
A DfE survey of 590 schools, obtained by Schools Week, found about one in 20 respondents did not plan to use the NTP at all this year, while 6 per cent said they didn’t know.
Falling subsidies put schools off tutoring
Of those not committing to use it, 62 per cent said they could not meet the requirement to fund 40 per cent of provision themselves.
Brook said the NTP was a four-year programme, with the target of six million programmes by 2024 “calculated on the basis of the total amount of funding allocated”.
“By withdrawing rather than reallocating unspent money, the government will struggle to argue that they have credible, funded plans to achieve that ambition,” said Brook.
“It seems perverse that unspent money from last year cannot be used for the purpose it was intended, this year and next.”
Just over £1.5 billion has so far been set aside for tutoring. But no public data exists on exactly how much relates to each academic year.
Published figures suggest £611 million was allocated in 2021-22. Of this, about £243 million was for the school-led tutoring route, and £368 million was for tuition partners and academic mentors.
A £100 million clawback would therefore represent a sixth of the total budget for last year.
‘The situation will only get worse’
In a letter to schools minister Nick Gibb last week, ASCL general secretary Geoff Barton said the DfE should allow schools to use their full funding allocation “still ring-fenced for tutoring, but without the requirement to subsidise it further themselves”.
He warned the alternative was a “significant proportion of this funding, for which your department fought hard, will remain unspent and need to be returned to the Treasury”.
Barton told Schools Week the anticipated clawback was “difficult to stomach. The situation will only get worse when schools are forced to make a more sizeable contribution next year.”
Schools had to complete a form detailing how much of their allocation they had spent, with any unspent cash due to be clawed back by the DfE.
According to Tes, about 850 schools had still not submitted their spending data by October 21, meaning they will have all their allocation taken back.
A DfE spokesperson said “100 per cent of schools” should be delivering the NTP as “government works with schools to help children catch up from lost learning in the pandemic”.
‘It was just full of bureaucracy’
Framwellgate School in Durham received £34,000 in tutoring funding last year. Head Andy Byers said they would return £21,500 because the school’s expected contribution was “too great for the impact this service has provided”. The school also struggled to find tutors.
“It wasn’t that we didn’t want to do it. It was just, as usual with these government initiatives, it was full of bureaucracy, where they throw a lot of money at it, publicise it, but actually the reality is very different.”
Sian Williams, principal of King’s Academy Ringmer in East Sussex, used tuition partners for one term and then stopped.
“Sometimes, the tutor didn’t turn up,” she said. “Not all of them were qualified. It was a bit of a lucky dip.”
Despite only using 15 sessions, it cost her “approximately” two-thirds of the school’s catch-up funds allocation that year. The following term, she found a local maths tutor and used funding to hire supply staff instead.
“We are still using the catch-up fund but having to balance the budget to do this. If we don’t spend it all we have to give it back.”
Tutoring ‘very difficult’ for special schools
Special schools found it particularly difficult to access the NTP.
Simon Knight, head of Frank Wise School in Banbury said it was “very difficult to be able to use the funding in a way that enabled us to support all pupils rather than a select few”.
“We felt very uncomfortable prioritising some over others when all pupils had experienced disruption to learning.”
He added the scheme was “highly bureaucratic, requiring administrative capacity we just do not have, and required us to subsidise its delivery, with money we do not have”.
“As a result of this, we decided not to use it and unfortunately the money will go back to DfE.”
Records of complaints received by tutoring provider Randstad last year, obtained by Schools Week, reveal how schools and academic mentors struggled with the third pillar of the programme.
Schools reported a lack of information about the programme and complained about the training process.
Several academic mentors also reported issues with being matched to schools, while others complained about covering teachers’ classes and problems with interviews.
Additional reporting by Samantha Booth and Donna Ferguson.