- Schools officially closed to all children except those considered vulnerable and children of key workers on Monday 23 March 2020. While there was a phased re-opening of schools from 1 June, further periods of lockdown were needed across the UK throughout 2020 and schools closed again from January until early March 2021. Over this time, most children were estimated to have lost half a year of face-to-face schooling (Sibieta, 2021).
- Concerns about the impact of the pandemic on children’s learning, health and mental wellbeing were raised early on in the lockdown, with the government opening inquiries to monitor the impact of COVID-19 on education and children’s services in late March and on white disadvantaged pupils in April 2020.
- A significant attainment gap between pupils from lower and higher income backgrounds existed prior to the first lockdown (Hutchinson et al., 2020). One early evidence review predicted that school closures could reverse the progress made to close this gap over the last decade (EEF, 2020).
- Extraordinary efforts were made by teachers and families to support children's learning under very difficult circumstances. However, the pandemic exposed the greater number of challenges faced by children in disadvantaged areas.
- For example, teachers had limited time to adapt to support remote learning, and fewer schools in these areas were well equipped to teach remotely. One study found that 60% of private and 37% of state schools in affluent areas had an online platform in place in advance of the first lockdown, compared with just 23% of the most deprived schools (Cullinane and Montacute, 2020).
- In addition, many families on lower incomes lacked the devices, wifi, resources and confidence needed to support home learning effectively (see, e.g. Teach First, 2020; Ofcom, 2020; NFER, 2020).
- Children and young people who were already advantaged by their home and school environments (for example, by having access to high-quality digital devices and connectivity, well-resourced teachers and confident parents) suffered significantly less impact on their learning than those from disadvantaged areas and lower income households (see, e.g. YouGov, 2020; IFS, 2020, Elliot Major et al., 2021).
- For example, studies carried out by the Department for Education (DfE), the Education Policy Institute and Renaissance Learning in autumn 2020 found a learning loss of up to 2 months in reading in both primary and secondary pupils (DfE, 2021). However, secondary schools with a high proportion of pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds had learning losses 50% higher than those serving fewer pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds (2.2 months vs. 1.5 months).
- A later analysis concluded that pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds experienced an extra month of learning loss in reading and an extra 0.5 month in mathematics compared to their better-off peers. This is equivalent to undoing a third of the progress made in the last decade on closing the gap in primary schools (DfE, 2021a).
- In addition, some regions were found to have greater learning loss in reading. Primary-aged pupils were found to have between 1.7 and 2 months’ mean learning loss in reading, but pupils in the North East and Yorkshire and the Humber lost 2.4 months and 2.2 months respectively (DfE, 2021). Secondary-aged pupils in the North East and Yorkshire and the Humber also experienced the greatest learning loss (2.3 and 2.4 months respectively). Learning losses were smallest in the South East (1.2 months), the East of England and the North West (both 1.3 months).
- Similarly, findings reported by RS Assessment in November 2020 indicated that the attainment gap increased over the period of school closures (Blainey et al., 2020). The study found “substantial drops” in attainment between 2019 and 2020 across all subjects and year groups. However, younger children, those eligible for the pupil premium and schools with higher levels of deprivation, in urban areas and in the North or Midlands all showed greater declines.
- Research carried out by RS Assessment during the spring term 2021 also found drops in attainment between spring 2020 and 2021, but these were more than twice the size of those noted at the end of autumn 2020. Alongside maths, grammar, punctuation and spelling showed the largest declines, with an average gap of three months’ progress, while reading showed a two-month gap. Compared with schools with a low percentage of pupils eligible for free school meals (FSM), decreases in scores for schools with high percentages of pupils eligible for FSMs were approximately twice as severe (Blainey et al., 2021).
- 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.
- In October 2021, research published by the DfE, EPI and Renaissance Learning summarised learning loss over the academic year 2020-21. Based on assessments in spring and summer terms 2021, findings 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, less progress in addressing learning loss in reading was made over the year 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).
- An ongoing summary of findings from assessment reports can be found here: https://educationendowmentfoundation.org.uk/eef-support-for-schools/covid-19-resources/best-evidence-on-impact-of-school-closures-on-the-attainment-gap/.
Academics have noted that time out of school deprives poorer students of the “protective and (at least partly) equalising role” that time in school can play for learning and development (Andrew et al., 2020). Studies to date indicate that early concerns about a widening gap in attainment between children from lower and higher-income backgrounds have, to an extent, been borne out. Much of the research to date shows that children who had good access to high-quality digital devices, well-resourced teachers and confident parents experienced significantly less impact on their learning during school closures than those from lower income households and disadvantaged areas.
While supporting children and young people’s mental and physical wellbeing during this crisis is a priority, attention must also be paid to equalising access to learning resources, in and out of school. Schemes to deliver laptops to young people most in need are not only an essential first step, but have the potential to support and extend learning even when schools are open. However, school and public libraries also 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.