More than half of pupils enrolled on the government's Covid catch-up tutoring scheme are yet to start their sessions, new figures show.
Last month a report by the National Audit Office (NAO) found that only a third of children allocated a place under the "Tuition Partners" arm of the National Tutoring Programme (NTP) – which involves pairing pupils up with approved providers offering subsidised catch-up sessions – had begun their tuition by February.
Now, in answer to a written question, schools minister Nick Gibb has revealed that there is still a significant proportion of pupils identified as being in need who are waiting to access support.
While the number of children enrolled on the scheme has risen to 196,000, there are 93,000 (47 per cent) who have "commenced" tutoring, he said.
An NTP spokesperson told Tes that once a school has signed a contract with a "Tuition Partner" – one of the approved providers offering subsidised sessions – the pupils concerned are automatically enrolled on the scheme.
Covid catch-up: 'Substantial practical hurdles' with tutoring scheme
The school will then work with the provider to design "tailored programmes" for each individual child before tuition gets underway.
This means schools have "flexibility" over when sessions start – which is an "important part" of the offer, the spokesperson added.
They said the lag in take-up may be explained by some schools deciding to delay tuition until later in the year so children could get settled back into the classroom, or in order to align sessions with preparation for summer assessments.
But headteachers said the NTP had been an "overcomplicated and overly burdensome way" of delivering extra support from the outset, with "substantial practical hurdles to overcome".
Julie McCulloch, director of policy at the Association of School and College Leaders, said such hurdles included "finding and engaging with suitable tutors before establishing mutually convenient times for students to link up with them".
"There inevitably has to be some degree of flexibility built into the programme to allow this complicated process to take place," she said.
But the "major cause for the delay", she added, was "the pandemic itself, the lengthy periods spent in lockdown and the resulting substantial disruption experienced by schools".
Paul Whiteman, general secretary of school leaders' union the NAHT, said it was "understandable that schools would 'back-end' this activity to the summer term, given the disruption faced throughout the spring".
He added: "However, whilst meeting the target to enrol 250,000 pupils in tutoring this year would be a significant achievement, it remains a fraction of the number of children and young people in this country that could benefit from tutoring support.
"We would like the see the government significantly ramping up the number of tutoring sessions available to pupils in greatest need, providing the funding and flexibility to schools so that every child who could benefit, does."
Mr Gibb also revealed, in response to the written question, that just 83 per cent of academic mentor placements, organised separately by Teach First, have been in schools with a greater than average proportion of children in receipt of the additional funding.
This means that more than one-sixth of the placements (17 per cent), for which the NTP says "schools serving disadvantaged communities throughout England" should have priority, have gone to those settings with an average, or even lower than average, proportion of children receiving the premium.
However, Teach First explained that the pupil premium entitlement rate was not the only factor used to decide which schools should be eligible for the academic mentors.
The charity said certain schools may still qualify for the extra help even if they have a slightly lower than average proportion of children in receipt of the premium, based on their score on the Income Deprivation Affecting Children Index (IDACI) and Achieving Excellence Areas (AEA).
The written question was lodged by shadow education secretary Kate Green, who asked: "How many children have been allocated a tutoring place under the National Tutoring Programme and across how many schools? How many of those children have started to receive tutoring? And how many of those children are eligible for the pupil premium?"
Mr Gibb responded: "Over 196,000 pupils have been enrolled to receive tutoring from 4,727 schools. Of those enrolled, over 93,000 have commenced tutoring, of which 45 per cent are eligible for pupil premium funding.
"We have placed 1,074 active mentors across 946 schools who have supported over 23,000 pupils. Eighty-three per cent of placements have been in schools with a greater than average proportion of pupils in receipt of pupil premium."
The NTP spokesperson said the data given by Mr Gibb was now more than two weeks out of date, and more children would have enrolled in the scheme and accessed sessions in the meantime.
The Department for Education has been approached for comment.