COVID-19 and literacy: Secondary schools

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Learning loss in secondary schools

During school closures related to the COVID-19 pandemic, teachers, librarians and families made extraordinary efforts to support young people's learning under unprecedented circumstances. However, these closures exposed the greater number of challenges faced by young people from lower income backgrounds.

Early concerns about the impact of school closures on the existing attainment gap between children from more and less advantaged backgrounds (see, e.g. EEF, 2020) have been evidenced, to an extent, by studies emerging throughout the academic year 2020-21:

Autumn term 2020

  • In autumn 2020, a study by the EPI and Renaissance Learning found a learning loss of up to 2 months in reading in both primary and secondary pupils, based on STAR assessments of more than 400,000 pupils (DfE, 2021).
  • The study noted that secondary schools with a high proportion of pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds had learning losses 50% higher than those with fewer disadvantaged pupils (2.2 months vs 1.5 months).
  • Some differences were also found in relation to regions. For example, secondary-aged pupils in the North East and Yorkshire and the Humber experienced the greatest learning loss in reading (2.3 and 2.4 months respectively).

Spring term 2021

  • A July 2021 blog comparing (Christodolou, 2021) 60,000 Year 7 writing assessments in September 2020 and May 2021 reported that while Year 7s “appear to have made above average progress in writing this year”, scaled average points scores are still comparable to the standard that might be expected of pupils in March of Year 6. At the same time, the rate of progress may be seen as promising, with scope for accelerated progress in Years 8 and 9.
  • In a report published in July 2021, communication charity I CAN estimated that 1.5 million children are at risk of not being able to speak or understand language at an age-appropriate level (I CAN, 2021). A survey of 1,000 UK primary and secondary teachers found that two-thirds (67%) believed their pupils were behind with speaking and/or understanding. 62% of secondary teachers surveyed believe that children who are moving to secondary school in September will struggle more with their speaking and understanding, in comparison to those who started secondary school before the COVID-19 pandemic.

Summer term 2021

  • In October 2021, research published by the DfE, EPI and Renaissance Learning based on assessments in spring and summer terms 2021 indicated important differences in learning loss by key stage, individual and regional disadvantage.
  • While the average learning loss in reading for primary-school aged pupils decreased between spring and summer, progress in addressing learning loss in reading was less marked for secondary school-aged pupils. Average losses of 1.5 months in autumn term 2020 had decreased only slightly, to 1.2 months, by summer term 2021.
  • More concerningly, levels of learning loss in reading for secondary school-aged pupils eligible for free school meals increased between over the academic year 2020-21. In autumn, reading losses for disadvantaged pupils were 1.9 months, but by summer 2021, this had increased to 2.4 months..This indicates evidence of a widening attainment gap between pupils from higher and lower income homes.
  • Indeed, disadvantaged pupils in deprived areas show the greatest levels of learning loss overall in summer term, at 2.7 months in reading in secondary pupils (DfE, 2021).

A major longitudinal cohort study is due to explore the short, medium and long-term impact of the pandemic on educational inequality and social mobility.

Funded by UK Research and Innovation (UKRI), the COVID Social Mobility and Opportunities study (COSMO) is a collaboration between the Sutton Trust, University College London and the Centre for Longitudinal Studies and will involve 12,000 young people in Year 11 (15 and 16-year-olds) across England and will disproportionately sample young people from disadvantaged, ethnic minority and other hard-to-reach groups to ensure it reflects the full range of experiences of the pandemic.

Commencing in autumn 2021, the first findings from the study will be published in early 2022.


The wide range of research carried out into the impact of school closures on children's learning has provided a broad picture of the many challenges faced, in particular, by those from lower income backgrounds.

Reading assessments carried out in autumn term 2020 and spring term 2021 found an increased learning loss in reading in pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds compared to their more advantaged peers. For example, early studies found that secondary schools with a high proportion of pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds had learning losses 50% higher than those with fewer disadvantaged pupils.

The most recent research, published in October 2021, found learning loss in reading secondary pupils decreased only slightly, from 1.5 to 1.2 months, between spring and summer term 2021.

Most notably, however, learning loss in reading for pupils eligible for free school meals actually increased over the academic year 2020-21, while disadvantaged pupils in deprived areas show the greatest levels of learning loss overall in summer term. Pupils in these areas, particularly those eligible for free school meals, will have most to benefit from targeted support to enable them to recover from ongoing educational disruption.

Regional differences have also been noted, with pupils in the North East and Yorkshire and the Humber experiencing greater-than-average levels of learning loss in reading. Find out more about our work in communities.

In the meantime, it is clear that school and public libraries have a key role to play in supporting children’s literacy and wellbeing by offering access to print books and guidance. There is also a role for the wider community, including literacy organisations and the business community. We offer schools and families a wide range of support, advice, resources and training, much of which is generously funded by corporate partners, trusts, foundations and individuals.

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