On Tuesday we re-launched the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Literacy. At the meeting we unanimously elected the new APPG Officers, with Christian Wakeford MP elected as Chair, and Lucy Powell MP, Lord Knight and Lord Tope as Vice-Chairs. The National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER) joined us to present some of its initial findings on the impact of the pandemic on attainment. Dr Christina Clark, Director of Research at the National Literacy Trust presented on the effect on literacy levels more specifically.
On his appointment, Christian said:
“I was delighted to be formally elected Chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Literacy. I am committed to working with the National Literacy Trust and the other Officers to increase literacy levels in the UK. The research we heard at the meeting about the impact of school closures on the attainment gap was startling, and there is an enormous task ahead of us, but I look forward to using this group and my role on the Education Select Committee to champion this issue in parliament and beyond.”
Liz Twist from NFER presented the impact of COVID-19 on attainment. According to NFER research, during the first lockdown and school closures, pupils were estimated to be three months behind their usual learning levels. However, there was a disproportionate effect on schools with a higher proportion of disadvantaged pupils.
NFER found that schools with higher levels of disadvantage had less pupils engaging with remote learning, with pupils in these schools having reduced access to IT resources. It is clear that this is a long term challenge, with little being known at the moment about the impact of school closures and the pandemic on young people’s learning. The Education Endowment Foundation has been working with NFER on some research about the initial impact on attainment, which will give us the first true picture of the challenge.
Dr Christina Clark, our Director of Research presented the impact of COVID-19 on literacy attitudes and behaviours. In July, we published research from our Annual Literacy Survey and additional findings from our survey of children and young people’s reading during the first lockdown. We found that children’s enjoyment of reading increased in this period, with many children saying they now had more time to read.
Another key finding Christina discussed was that lockdown increased the literacy engagement gap between boys and girls, with the gap widening from 2.3% before lockdown to 11.5% during lockdown.
Our Chief Executive, Jonathan Douglas CBE, facilitated a Q&A about the impact of the pandemic on children and young people’s learning. Spokespeople and attendees shared evidence and anecdotes which confirmed COVID-19 has magnified all existing inequalities in education and that it will be some time before we truly understand the extent of its damage.
The importance of early years came up multiple times in the discussion, and although some families have benefited from increased time at home together, others have struggled with lack of access to books, the closure of playgrounds and lack of physical space and the mental health and wellbeing of parents too. Christian asked what the government could do to help tackle the attainment gap, with the resounding answer from the panellists being to invest in the early years. Both Liz and Christina agreed that if you catch these issues early on, you solve so much and set children up for learning throughout their lives.
Another theme that came up was the impact of the digital divide. Jonathan shared a conversation he had with Dame Alison Peacock, Chief Executive of the Chartered College of Teaching, where she told him about young people who were forced to work from buses and public library carparks to access internet to help them with their school work.
This led to the panel speaking about the importance of public and school libraries in terms of recovery and support. One of the challenges with some public libraries closed has been lack of access to books for disadvantaged families. The closure of some school libraries either because of COVID risk or to make additional classroom spaces has had an impact on the variety of books available to pupils, with many having to reread existing books. Christina mentioned the benefits that e-books bring for this reason. Earlier in the week we announced the Virtual School Library we developed with Oak National Academy. You can see the library here. Public libraries also have large catalogues of e-books that families can access. Find your local library service here.
Finally, the panelists spoke about what we should be particularly concerned about as a result of the pandemic. Liz spoke about the fact that the pandemic has created further gaps where there were already issues ‘what was a fissure is now a chasm’. She spoke about how there are issues that we might not know about yet, for example themes around speech, language and communication skills. These are harder to measure, but the digital delivery of education means there is less interaction between pupils and less opportunities for social skills to develop in the formative early years of education.
It is clear that there is a huge challenge ahead of us to address the issues caused by the pandemic. And, as more research comes to light, the challenge will only grow. We were reassured that the discussion at the APPG showed the appetite from across the sector to work together in tackling these issues.
You can view the whole event online here. We are currently in the process of developing our APPG activity. If you would like to be included in future events please email Tessa.TylerTodd@literacytrust.org.uk.