How big is the challenge due to Covid-19 education disruption, and what can be done about it
By IOE Editor, on 23 February 2021
By Lindsey Macmillan, Jake Anders, Gill Wyness
8th March 2021 will be the date that all children return to in-person schooling after another 8 weeks of absence for the majority. This is just short of a full year since schools first had to close their doors back on 20th March 2020. Of course, schools have been open throughout to critical workers’ and vulnerable children but, for most, there has been a return to home learning, and all of the difficulties that come with it. In this post, we consider the scale of the challenge that we are likely to face given the disruption to education that has been experienced over the past year, and what policymakers might do to mitigate these effects.
There can be little overstating of the sheer magnitude of the challenge that we face in recovering the huge amount of learning loss. There are three main points to make here from the evidence:
First, the emerging evidence from lockdown one is showing large learnings losses and big impacts on socio-emotional development. A recent study from EEF and NfER found that on average Year 2 children were two months behind in Autumn 2020 compared to previous cohorts. Another study by Juniper Education found that the number of children achieving at expected levels in primary school had fallen by one fifth in 2020 compared to 2019. Recent evidence from ImpactEd showed that the pandemic has also had a negative impact on children’s socio-emotional outcomes. And the modelling of the impact of this for the future economy is bleak. There are a range of estimates here, but they start in tens of billions and go into the trillions of pounds in lost earnings and growth due to lost learning.
Second, these average effects are masking big differences across groups. We know that younger and disadvantaged children have seen the biggest impacts. Disadvantaged children are 7 months behind where previous cohorts were at the same stage, compared to the average of 2 months. They also made the slowest progress in the autumn term, suggesting catch up efforts are not doing enough to tackle these differential effects. These greater educational losses also suggests future earnings losses will be particularly pronounced for this group, exacerbating inequality for a generation to come. As well as losses affecting certain types of pupils differentially, we are also seeing differences by skill type: while we see losses in learning across the range of key skills, they are more evident in maths in primary school.
Third, and crucially, these findings are all based on evidence from before this most recent lockdown. There is good reason to expect that differential learning losses will have worsened during the current lockdown – inequalities will have widened further. Why is that? Well while most pupils had relatively limited access to online learning in lockdown 1, this time around the picture is quite different. Online provision has improved, but not all will have been able to take full advantage of this. There are multiple barriers to home learning for disadvantaged pupils. While some of the more obvious barriers have been ameliorated by policy – laptops have been sent out, internet resources have been provided – there are many barriers that schools and DfE cannot mitigate. These include a lack of physical space to sit and work, different levels of parental confidence, different parental abilities to engage with the material to help children, and different skills to access the multiple online platforms required. Taken together this implies that, unfortunately, we are likely to see even larger inequalities in learning losses when children return to their classrooms.
What policy responses are required to mitigate these impacts?
Given the likely scale and nature of the task, this isn’t going to be easy. A key question for policymakers here is ‘What are we trying to do?’ Are we aiming to work our way back to pre-pandemic levels of skills and achievement, taking those stubborn inequalities in skills that we saw prior to all of this as given? Are we merely trying to reduce new levels of inequalities? Or are we thinking about reframing what our education system should be doing? The policy responses are very much dependent on the answer to those questions.
There is some very good evidence that small group and one-to-one tuition is an effective intervention for aiding pupil progress. As such it’s heartening that money has been invested accordingly subsidising a range of offerings in this space – this is a great example of evidence-led policy-making. But challenges remain. As the pandemic goes on – and given the likely further impact of the most recent closures – we need to ensure this resource is both adequately funded and targeted.
But given what we know about skill development, and rates of progress made in the autumn term, is this going to be enough? There are understandable concerns about wellbeing and play-based approaches should be prioritised for younger children. Unfortunately, this is unlikely to be something that will be a quick fix – we need to track data on progress and the impact of interventions, and keep coming back to this issue in the medium to long-term to adjust the policy design in response to what the evidence tells us here.
Finally, the wider evidence supports the need for high-quality inputs: investing in teachers and teaching assistants, ensuring that financial incentives are targeted in the places and subject areas where we need them, and bringing senior leaders and the teacher workforce along in this process is going to be vital for recovery. Therefore, serious caution is needed here when discussing ideas such as extending school days or cutting holidays.
In the long run, we need to ensure that schools have the resources required to tackle the challenges they face. At times of great crisis comes great opportunity – the end of the Second World War saw the introduction of Free School Meals – and this might be the time to re-think fundamentally how we cater for those most at need across the education system, rebalancing funding and high-quality inputs accordingly to achieve this aim.