COVID-19 and literacy: Secondary schools

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Learning loss in secondary schools

Teachers, librarians and families made extraordinary efforts to support young people's learning under unprecedented circumstances. However, the pandemic 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:

  • 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).
  • 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.
  • 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.

Summary

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 have 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.

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. Whether this situation may improve in summer term remains to be seen. 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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