Officials from the Department for Education (DfE) were quizzed this morning over spending hundreds of thousands of pounds on “pollsters” to evaluate learning loss, with MPs arguing that this money could have been spent on the “front line”.
In a meeting of the House of Commons’ education select committee on school funding and finances, it was revealed that £190,000 had been spent on a contract for Ipsos Mori – in consortium with Sheffield Hallam University – to evaluate catch-up funding.
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This is on top of the £140,000 assigned to education tech company Renaissance Learning to research learning loss during the pandemic.
“It’s an awful lot of money to be spent on consultants, not on the front line,” said Commons’ education chair Robert Halfon.
DfE qualifications director Graham Archer said: “I’m not sure I would refer to them as consultants – I would think of them as researchers and builders of the evidence base for future action.”
Mr Halfon asked who had signed off on the decision to use the two companies. Mr Archer said there would have been a formal process of appointment.
“Was it signed off by ministers?” said Mr Halfon.
Mr Archer said he did not know but ministers would have been involved in agreeing that there should be an evaluation of catch-up funding.
“There’s a formal competition, we tender for it – we receive bids from any organisation who wants to bid – and take a decision about the best outcome,” said Mr Archer.
“So you didn’t get direction from ministers to spent hundreds of thousands of pounds on pollsters?” asked Mr Halfon.
“They would have signed off the proposition to undertake an evaluation. They would not have specified, nor would it have been right to specify, who that should go to and it went to the best organisation in the competition,” said Mr Archer.
Earlier in the meeting, Mr Archer did not appear to know the full details of Renaissance Learning as a company.
Mr Halfon said: “I am looking at [their website]. They sort of offer software but they’ve got a big shop selling “star” stress keyrings for £1.50, pencil sharpeners, magnetic bookmarks, as well as software. Is this the same company?"
Mr Archer said: “I didn't know that they sold any of those things – they are doing research for us.
“I would be pretty confident that this isn’t an organisation that sells rubbers and pencil sharpeners,” he added.
But a blog on Renaissance Learning’s website promotes its work with the Education Policy Institute on learning loss, and the star-shaped stress keyrings and stationery are sold elsewhere on the site.
“I did not know it did any of those things – I would be surprised if it did. I imagine there are more than one company called Renaissance,” said Mr Archer.
“I would be interested to know how this company was chosen,” said Mr Halfon.
A spokesperson for Renaissance Learning said: "All our work at Renaissance is rooted in research and best practice from education professionals, psychometricians and data scientists – with the goal of improving outcomes and accelerating learning for all.
"This research will provide schools, academics, and MATs with the relevant insights they need to tailor learning effectively and address the clear impact of Covid-19 on teaching and learning in the months and years ahead."