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Archive for the 'COSMO' Category

The Class of 2023: (some of) the kids are alright

By Blog editor, on 17 August 2023

By Gill Wyness, Lindsey Macmillan, and Jake Anders

Today marks the first ‘true’ A level and Vocational and Technical Qualifications (VTQs) exam results since the more innocent days of 2019. Although pupils sat exams in 2022, their results were adjusted by Ofqual’s “glide path” which aimed to move results gradually back to pre-pandemic exam grading following the grade inflation of 2020 and 2021. So, a comparison of todays’ results versus 2019 should provide information about the extent of learning loss experienced during the pandemic. And the results present a bleak picture for inequality in England.

Back to the future?

Overall, the proportion of pupils awarded a C or above at A level is more or less back to 2019 levels. This is perhaps grounds for optimism; these students have had a very different learning experience compared to their peers in 2019. They experienced a global pandemic, and severe disruption to their schooling in critical years – as Figure 1 shows. In addition, this cohort did not sit GCSE exams, so lack that crucial experience of performing under pressure that previous cohorts have had.

Figure 1: Timeline of the Class of 2023

However, there is much less cause for optimism when we look at inequalities in the results. At the moment, these are only available across school types, and regions.

Mind the gap

Looking first at inequalities by school type, the gap between academies and independent schools has widened since 2019. The proportion awarded a C or above is down slightly in academies (75.4% in 2023 versus 75.7% in 2019) whilst it is up in independent schools (89% versus 88%). This represents a 1.3 percentage point increase in the state-independent gap, which now stands at 13.6 percentage points. For the top grades (A and above), the independent-state gap has widened slightly more, to 1.4 percentage points.

We already know that students from these different school types had very different schooling and learning experiences during the pandemic. Figure 2, from CEPEO’s COSMO Study, highlights the disparity in learning provision experienced by students from different school types during the pandemic. The disparities in A level performance that we see today are yet more confirmation that these students did not experience the disruption of the pandemic equally.

Figure 2: Provision of live online lessons, by school characteristics, lockdown 1 and 3

There are also notable inequalities across region. In particular, (and as was the case last year), London and the South East continue to pull away from all other regions with the largest increase in the proportion achieving A/A* since 2019, and some of the smallest declines relative to last year’s cohort. Meanwhile, the North East and Yorkshire and Humber are the only regions with a lower proportion achieving A/A* compared to 2019.

Competitor advantage

As discussed, it is harder to make comparisons between today’s results and last years, because 2022 results were adjusted by Ofqual’s glide path. However, for pupils receiving their results today, the 2022 cohort are their closest competitors in terms of higher education (gap year students) and more crucially the labour market, so for them, the comparison really matters.

Overall, results are down from 2022; this isn’t surprising and is part of the glide-path strategy. However, inequalities here are concerning; for C or above, the academy-private gap is up 3.8 ppts compared to 2022.

Among the highest attainers (A/A*), the story is more nuanced. Compared to last year’s cohort the state-private gap has narrowed (1ppt). Remember private schools had far more grade inflation at the top of the distribution when exams were switched to Teacher Assessed Grades in 2021, as figure 3 clearly shows. That they have failed to maintain this stark advantage among top grades suggests some of the record grades awarded over the pandemic were likely down to teacher ‘optimism’. But as mentioned above, the gap among high attainers is up since 2019, therefore also reflecting the better quality of learning experienced by private school students during the lockdowns.

Figure 3: Teacher ‘optimism’ across school types

Subjective scrutiny

Comparing subjects that are more or less objective to assess can also tell us something about how meaningful the results of 2020 and 2021 might be. For example, if we compare results for maths – arguably an easier subject for teachers to grade in their assessments – with drama, we see just how problematic the teacher predicted/assessed grades of 2020 and 2021 were.


Figure 4: Grades by maths and drama

The forgotten 378,000

Of course today isn’t just about A levels – a sizeable proportion of the Class of 2023 – over 378,000 students – took Level 3 vocational and technical qualifications. There is far less data available on these qualifications to provide any real depth of analysis – an issue in itself.

Following a similar pattern to A levels, higher attainment grades for level 3 qualifications are: – up relative to 2019 (at distinction or above), and down relative to 2022 (at merit or above)

Many have pointed out the worrying dropout rates of those taking T levels (the new, technical-level qualification which were launched in 2020) – although it’s important to note that these currently make up only a tiny fraction of vocational and technical qualifications. Of those who did complete, 90% passed with girls outperforming boys at higher levels.

Inequalities persist

In summary then, today’s results present a mixed picture for young people in England. On the one hand, results are back to the pre-Covid heyday, but inequalities are wider, and this again emphasises the inequalities in experiences during the pandemic. These will likely persist well into the labour market – a feature that our COSMO study will track well into the future. Look out for more bleak news to come. This should be a timely reminder to those making education spending decisions in Whitehall for future cohorts.

Post-pandemic schooling challenges: CEPEO’s second annual lecture by Professor Joshua Goodman

By Blog Editor, on 10 August 2023

Lisa Belabed with Jake Anders and Lindsey Macmillan

Each year, CEPEO holds an annual lecture showcasing vital research on education policy and equalising opportunities. For this year’s lecture (held at Central Hall Westminster on Thursday 20 July 2023) we were delighted that Professor Joshua Goodman from Boston University, who recently completed a year in Washington DC on the US President’s Council of Economic Advisors, joined us to talk about his ongoing research on post-pandemic schooling challenges in the United States — which have many parallels with the challenges we are facing in the UK.

Professor Lindsey Macmillan, CEPEO’s Director, began proceedings by recapping highlights from the centre’s past year, including the recently released evidence-based policy priorities, and new research from the COSMO study, as well as reminding us that CEPEO was established just six months before the pandemic started, with its huge implications for educational inequalities and, hence, the direction of our research, including a shift to carry out work to understand post-pandemic schooling challenges.

How it Started

Professor Goodman’s talk was divided into three parts. He started with his research at the beginning of the pandemic, as 50 million children across the US saw their schools close their doors, for what would turn out to be periods ranging from a few months to over a year. At this point, there was virtually no data on school disruption of this scale, and this lack of historical precedent made it difficult to predict learning losses.

However, those unprecedented learning losses were difficult both to grasp and fully anticipate, and there were disparities among parents’ ability to and proactivity in responding to them. Professor Goodman and colleagues used Google Trends to try to quantify the extent of these responses: by April 2020 searches for school- and parent-centred online learning resources doubled compared to pre-Covid levels. Partly because of these differential responses, learning losses were worse for students in high-poverty schools, whose families were less likely to have the resources to compensate for their losses outside of school. Josh pointed out his own ability as a professor and former mathematics public school teacher in helping his children stay on track as exemplifying those disparities.

Beyond learning loss, Professor Goodman highlighted that school enrolment has also been adversely affected by the pandemic, with public school enrolment dropping 3% in autumn 2020, the largest decrease since World War II. Part of this can be explained by an increase in homeschooling, likely driven by health fears, but many of those students effectively vanished.

Josh was also keen to avoid being entirely negative in his assessment of the situation. One silver lining of the pandemic relates to bullying. Turning again to Google Trends data, Goodman and colleagues found that searches about bullying and cyberbullying (perhaps especially surprising for the latter) were reduced as a result of school closures. Suicide rates among children also decreased as schools closed.

How it’s Going

Having described the immediate impacts of COVID-19 disruption, Professor Goodman turned to post-pandemic recovery efforts. Early in the pandemic, the US federal government sent $60 billion to K-12 schools: an unprecedented use of federal funds for school support, as schools in the US are mostly funded at the state- or local-level. This was followed in March 2021 by Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER), another $120 billion to be spent by 2024. A minimum of just 20% of ESSER was allocated to be spent on programmes to reduce learning loss, and a lot has rather been spent on temporary hires and salary increases for teachers. The extent of this support dwarfs that which we have seen in England, but appears to have been less well targeted.

As our understanding of the effects of the pandemic on learning loss has become clearer, the picture has remained bleak. The US has seen a drop in 8th grade math scores estimated to lower lifetime income by 1.6% or $1 trillion across all affected students. Chronic absenteeism rates have doubled in many states — more so in schools with high proportions of ethnic minority students — with an average of 6-7 missed days per school year. And enrolment has remained an issue: there was no rebound in enrolment in autumn 2021 to offset the 3% of students who had left public schools at the onset of the pandemic in 2020. While there were widespread concerns about teacher burnout early in the pandemic, there is a lack of direct evidence on this point, but the rate of quitting has jumped 17%.

What now?

Concluding his talk, Professor Goodman was keen to focus on the future and what we should be doing to mitigate the challenges he outlined. Asking “what now?” he set out what he sees as the biggest challenges facing education policymakers at this moment. First, the big federal spending in light of the still terrible learning results is leading to a narrative of wasted funds, which makes it challenging to obtain further funding. But, he pointed out, this ignores the counterfactual: the learning losses without this federal support could very easily have been even worse.

Second, districts (somewhat equivalent to English local authorities, albeit retaining more oversight over schools than many now have here) still do not understand the scope of intervention necessary to tackle the learning loss that has become embedded. On top of this, they are concerned that adding instructional time is not popular, are finding high-quality tutoring hard to scale, and that the teacher workforce is tired, sapping energy for taking the urgent action still needed.

Third, there is a perception that parents do not have the appetite to tackle the embedded learning loss their children are facing. This is largely because they often do not recognise that their child’s academic skills were affected by the disruption of the pandemic, as school grades (“on a curve”) can have tended to obscure learning losses from them.

In the face of these challenges, Professor Goodman stressed the importance of getting attendance back to pre-pandemic levels, as absenteeism makes all other interventions less effective. This mirrors one of CEPEO’s policy priorities of reducing pupil absenteeism. He also highlighted the need to help districts (or, in a UK context, school and academy chain leadership) understand the scope of intervention needed, as well as the importance of choosing solutions that scale. For instance, tutoring has proven difficult and labour-intensive, and Josh argues that other, more widely manageable, teaching solutions would be preferable, notably through technology that supports, rather than replaces, teachers’ work.

Wrapping up

The lecture ended with Professor Goodman reasserting the importance of data, which is foundational in his research on education and economics — the same being true for CEPEO. In the US, the local nature of schooling presents major data challenges. He also stressed the need for timely datasets: federal enrolment data is released with a one-year lag, which he argues is much too long: by the time the data are released, another school year has already begun so policymakers often feel that priorities have ‘moved on’. He also stressed a lack of data on important issues such as teacher workforce, and the difficulty of measuring ESSER funds’ spending and efficiency.

Having had the opportunity to speak with members of CEPEO on their own research, Professor Goodman referred to the datasets being used and developed within the centre. These include pioneering use of administrative data such as the Longitudinal Educational Outcomes (LEO) dataset, in partnership with the UK Government, along with the COVID Social Mobility & Opportunities (COSMO) study supported by UKRI Economic and Social Research Council and in partnership with the UK Department for Education. He called for more partnerships of this kind in building datasets that will allow research that drives forward education policy by helping to identify schooling challenges rapidly and responding to them just as rapidly.

Reduced engagement in extra-curricular activities post-pandemic: should we be worried?

By Blog Editor, on 19 June 2023

COSMO researcher, Alice De Gennaro, considers the potential impacts of the dip in young people’s engagement with extra-curricular activities post-pandemic.

In our previous analysis, we documented the significant changes in extra-curricular activities that occurred during the COVID-19 pandemic. We found that students from less advantaged socio-economic backgrounds re-engaged with extra-curricular activities to a much lesser degree, especially when looking at school type. Females were also less likely to re-engage with these activities and we look at the implications of this.

We also consider what might be the implications of such changes. In doing so we describe the association between continuing engagement in extra-curricular activities and young people’s health and wellbeing. We build on the analysis in the previous analysis and in our measure of continuing engagement we include those who never did any extra-curricular activities pre-pandemic to get a sense of a more general notion of extra-curricular engagement. A summary of this measure is illustrated below.

Figure 1. Continuing engagement (N=6,286)

We find that higher rates of continuing with extra-curricular activities and engaging with these activities at all are associated with lower rates of high psychological distress, better self-esteem and more physical activity. Higher frequency of physical activity is associated with better self-esteem and lower rates of high psychological distress, although only up to a threshold of five days exercise per week. We also look at associations of these findings with gender, to see how effects of reduced engagement may be distributed.

It should be noted that analysis here is descriptive and causality cannot be inferred for a number of reasons including bi-directional relationships (those with worse health/wellbeing are more likely to disengage from extra-curricular activities, as well as reduced extra-curricular engagement potentially being a risk factor for worse health/wellbeing) and the likely presence of other factors driving both more extra-curricular engagement and better health and wellbeing.

To form a picture of the relationship between extracurricular engagement and health and wellbeing, we analyse several relevant measures of health and wellbeing: GHQ-12 scores, self-esteem scores, and levels of physical activity.

Evidence has shown links between extra-curricular activities and benefits for mental health. Another study found similar associations also during the COVID-19 pandemic. The figure below echoes these findings as rates of high psychological distress are higher among those who never did or stopped all activity. The proportion in the latter group was higher, which is suggestive that the association between engagement and mental health is amplified when people stop an activity, as opposed to never having done it. Rates of high psychological distress were lower among the respondents who started and continued with extracurricular activities, with proportions being only marginally different between those continuing with one to two activities and those who continued with three or more.

Figure 2. Continuing engagement in extra-curricular activities and GHQ-12 score (N=5,933)

While the GHQ-12 measure attempts to capture a general picture of mental health, here we can pull out a specific relationship with self-esteem that engagement seems beneficial. Evidence suggests that extra-curricular participation is linked to self-esteem. Following this, we look at the responses to an adapted Rosenberg self-esteem scale ranging from 0-15, 0 being low self-esteem and 15 being high. The average across the whole sample is 9.27 (N=11,464). The average scores among those who never did any activity and those who continued with no activities are similar at just under 9. The score then increases by almost half a point for those continuing with 1-2 activities and then by a full point for those continuing with 3 or more.

Given the lower extra-curricular engagement of girls it is useful to look further into self-esteem by gender. Overall, we find that boys had an average reported self-esteem score of 9.8. The average for girls was lower, at 8.8, and lower still for non-binary+ individuals at 6.5 (N=11,464). The table below splits these scores out by our continuing engagement variable, and we see the same pattern persist, with scores rising with engagement but with girls reporting lower self-esteem at each level. This is consistent with common findings that girls report lower self-esteem than boys. The findings below may be cause for concern that the reduction in extra-curricular engagement following the pandemic could harm young people’s self-esteem and perhaps more disproportionately that of girls.

Previous analysis found that females in this cohort had higher levels of high psychological distress and so considering this alongside the findings about self-esteem might cause further concern about the different engagement patterns by gender.

Table 1. Average self-esteem scores by continuing engagement and gender (N=5,788)

How much of a role does physical activity play in extracurricular engagement and wellbeing?

One way to look into students’ extra-curricular life, aside from their participation in specific clubs and activities, is to look at their self-reported days of exercise per week. This allows us to focus in on the fitness aspects of their life outside of school. While the pattern between extra-curricular activity and general health is nonlinear, looking at days of exercise can tease out a more specific form of health and its relation to extra-curricular activity.

We found a significant association between students’ weekly physical activity and their continuation in extra-curricular activities, as shown in Table 2. The more students engaged with extra-curricular activities, the more exercise they did per week, with those carrying on with three or more activities doing twice as much weekly exercise as those who never took part in extra-curricular activities. This suggests (as we might have expected) that extra-curricular activities are a major source of physical activity. Looked at from a slightly different perspective, among those who reported zero days of physical activity per week, over a third didn’t continue with any extra-curricular activities. This proportion was half as much for those who exercised every day of the week, affirming that reduced engagement in extra-curricular activities was quite a hit to the physical activity of students.

Table 2. Continuing engagement in extra-curricular activities and days exercise per week (N=3,742)

We find a U-shaped relationship between number of days exercise per week and elevated risk of psychological distress. The greater the number of days of exercise per week up to five days is associated with a lower proportion at elevated risk of psychological distress. However, rates of poor mental health then increase slightly as days of exercise per week increase further from five to seven days, although the proportion at risk is still far lower than those doing no exercise in a week. This inversion at the highest levels of physical activity might be capturing an externalising response to stress, where young people are exercising more to alleviate higher levels of stress. Alternatively, it could reflect some form of burden of exercising nearly every day while handling other aspects of their life, such as schoolwork and other responsibilities.

Figure 3. Weekly physical activity and % at elevated risk of psychological distress (based on GHQ-12 score) (N=7,319)

Physical activity may be a component in the link between extra-curricular activity and self-esteem. Reported self-esteem scores on average increase by around one point when students move from zero days (7.8) to one day (8.8) of exercise per week. Students who exercised for two or more days a week had higher self-esteem scores ranging from 9.2-9.9. A similar pattern persists among boys and girls, although girls start from a lower score. While these changes are small, they are not insignificant.

Given that extra-curricular engagement appears to be a major source of physical activity, the link between self-esteem and extra-curricular activities may be driven by the apparent boost to self-esteem that higher levels of exercise are associated with.


In this blog post, we have tried to unpack the relationship between extra-curricular engagement and pupil health and wellbeing. By looking across a variety of measures we can draw some conclusions. There is a small but significant association of extra-curricular engagement with lower levels of high psychological distress and higher self-esteem. We should not ignore gender differences here, as females not only had lower levels of engagement but reported lower self-esteem scores overall.

Looking further into physical activity, it appears that extra-curricular engagement accounts for a large amount of the exercise students do per week, suggesting that the decline in engagement during the pandemic would have made exercise frequency lower. More frequent physical activity is also associated with lower rates of high psychological distress up to a point, along with slightly higher self-esteem.

The findings in this analysis suggest that we should not underestimate the impact of a decline in extra-curricular engagement. We should consider not just how this engagement affects labour market potential but the personal aspects for young people, such as their mental health, self-esteem and physical fitness, especially bearing in mind the different patterns for boys and girls. Because pupils from more disadvantaged backgrounds engaged less with extra-curricular activities following the pandemic, we must acknowledge that any implications of reduced engagement on health and wellbeing will likely disproportionately affect these groups. We need to address the barriers that young people face to taking part in extra-curricular activities in relation to their socio-economic background and gender, so that we can keep young people feeling positive and healthy.

This is the second piece in a two-part analysis.

Young people’s engagement with extra-curricular activities following the pandemic

By Blog Editor, on 19 June 2023

COSMO researcher, Alice De Gennaro, documents young people’s extra-curricular engagement in the aftermath of the pandemic.

The COVID-19 pandemic caused significant disruption to all of our lives. The disruption to young people’s lives was well-documented across a wide range of areas including education (during and after lockdowns), future plans, wellbeing, and health. One area that has received less attention is young people’s continuing engagement with extra-curricular activities. But this is an important topic given the potential benefits of taking part in such activities. In the second analysis of this series, we show that there is a positive relationship between extra-curricular engagement and measures of wellbeing and students’ levels of exercise.

In this blog post analysis, we explore changes in such activities from before the pandemic to during the period of ongoing disruption in the academic year 2020-21. We find significant reductions in extra-curricular activities both in and out of school and a reduction in intensity where activities did continue. These changes were larger for some groups than others, especially by school type and gender.

What did we ask students?

Students were asked if they engaged in five kinds of extra-curricular activities both before the pandemic started when students were in Year 10 and when schools reopened when students were in Year 11. The five types of activities were: sport, other club, religious activity not including regular worship, community or voluntary work, and overnight organised activities.  Students were asked if they took part in each of these activities. Among those who did take part, they were further asked if this activity was organised by their school or externally, or both. It is important to note that these questions mean our measures reflects how a student took-up an activity (if they did) rather than whether or not an activity is being offered (because we only know the type of provision conditional on them having taken part).

How did the take-up of extra-curricular activities change during the pandemic?

Unsurprisingly, there was a drop in the total take-up of extracurricular activities after the onset of the pandemic, compared to before it started. The proportion of activities being undertaken that were provided by schools were cut roughly in half for all activity types. Take up of externally provided activities dropped, too, but to a lesser extent.

Figure 1. Take-up and type of provision of extra-curricular activities in year 10 (pre-pandemic) and year 11 (schools open) (N=6,286)

The table below shows the proportion of students continuing with each extra-curricular activity in year 11 given that they took part in it in year 10, regardless of the type of provision. Sporting activities had the highest rate of continuation while overnight activities were much less likely to be resumed.

Table 1. Proportion of students continuing with extra-curricular activities in year 11

Students were also asked how often they did extra-curricular activities (excluding overnight stays) in both periods. Among those who reported any extra-curricular activity in year 10 (N=2,843), we found that 28% of students decreased their frequency of activity, 61% kept it the same and 12% took part in activities more frequently.

Looking into the differences in frequency of activity in both time periods, we find that young people were tending to take part in extra-curricular activities fewer times per week, with 3% of those who previously responded as participating with some frequency, saying they never did any activities in year 11. While 46% of students participated three or more times a week pre-pandemic, this dropped to 37% when schools re-opened.

Figure 2. Frequency of extra-curricular activities in year 10 and year 11 (N=2,796)

How did continuing engagement vary?

To get a more holistic understanding of changes in extra-curricular engagement, we constructed a measure of how many activities students continued with when schools reopened compared to before the pandemic. By definition, we could only construct this measure among those who did take part in at least one activity pre-pandemic. By looking at how this measure varies across some key socio-economic and demographic characteristics, we find some interesting patterns.

Girls stopped all activities in greater proportions than boys and were less likely to continue with both 1-2 and 3+ activities. In a follow up analysis, we discuss what these gender differences in engagement might mean for their health and wellbeing. Overall patterns of engagement across ethnic groups were not starkly different.

Figure 3. Continuing engagement by gender (N=6,286)

Figure 4. Continuing engagement by ethnicity (N=3,898)

Students from state schools were more than three times more likely to stop all activity and three times less likely to continue with three or more activities than their peers in independent schools. For every activity, the proportion of students doing activities organised by their school was highest among those at independent schools, most markedly for sport. Furthermore, pupils from independent schools overall took part in more activities in both school years. While we might expect that independent schools are able to organise more activities for their pupils, Table 2 illustrates a potential link between greater school provision and total extra-curricular engagement (including external). In other words, lower school provision (proxied by lower rates of extra-curricular take-up in schools) may not lead to pupils taking part in more activities outside of school — they seem to be complements rather than substitutes.

Young people living in more deprived neighbourhoods (as measured using IDACI, a widely used measure of income deprivation) stopped all extra-curricular activities in greater proportions than those in more affluent neighbourhoods, with an 18-percentage point difference between the least and most deprived quintile groups. This tracks across the other categories, too, as we see that higher deprivation is associated with proportionally fewer students continuing with one or more activities.

Figure 5. Continuing engagement by carer status, school type, IDACI (N=4,334)

Table 2. Total number of extracurricular activities by school type in Year 11(N=6,261)

Young carers were less likely to stop and more likely to continue with three or more activities than their peers without caring responsibilities. This might be surprising if young people with caring duties have less time to spend on extra-curricular activities compared to those without such responsibilities. Looking further into this by activity type, we found that carers had higher proportions of continuing with every activity compared to non-carers, especially community activities which might represent a certain civic mindedness. Interestingly, the proportion of students taking part in each activity pre-pandemic were similar across both groups. It is only once schools re-opened that differences emerge, and carers show higher rates of participation.

Continuation of extra-curricular activities was also strongly linked to parents’ socio-economic status. The children of parents without a degree were less likely to continue with any activities than those whose parents do have a degree. Young people with parents who have a degree were also more likely to continue with one or more activities compared to the other group.

The children of parents with lower occupational status jobs were much more likely not to continue with any activities, with a 15-percentage point difference between those from routine backgrounds and those from managerial and professional backgrounds. The proportion of those from intermediate backgrounds continuing with three or more activities was around half that of the other two groups.

A similar story appears by housing tenure and so it thus appears that children from more disadvantaged backgrounds were less likely to re-engage with extra-curricular activity once schools reopened, even among those who took part in such activities before the pandemic.

Figure 6. Continuing engagement by parent characteristics (N=2,405)


The take-up of extra-curricular activities done in or out of school and the frequency with which students did them, dropped once schools re-opened compared to their previous academic year before the pandemic started. It is important to note that disengagement from extra-curricular activities may have occurred had the pandemic not happened. The prospect of upcoming Year 11 exams and more generally being older are some reasons why this could be the case and this analysis does not allow us specifically to isolate the effects of the pandemic on extra-curricular engagement. Nevertheless, our findings highlight important patterns with potential implications for other aspects of students’ lives.

While it may have been expected that the overall take-up and frequency of extra-curricular activities was dampened once schools reopened, this was far from equally spread among students from different backgrounds. Concerningly, across various measures and correlates of socio-economic background (school type, IDACI, NS-SEC, parental education and housing tenure) we see a similar pattern of students from more disadvantaged backgrounds re-engaging with extra-curricular activities to a much lesser degree compared to their more advantaged peers, echoing findings from Social Mobility Commission before the pandemic. Furthermore, girls had lower levels of engagement with extra-curricular activities in the wake of the pandemic, and we discuss in the following analysis how this pattern might interact with health and wellbeing.

On a positive note, sporting activities saw the highest rate of continuation, which is promising for both physical and mental health, given links between exercise and wellbeing. There was also little difference in patterns of engagement by ethnic groups and, despite their additional responsibilities, carers had higher rates of extra-curricular engagement.

Extra-curricular engagement leads to a range of positive outcomes for young people, especially as UK employers increasingly demand soft skills, which may be developed via extra-curricular engagement. This engagement may thus be important for intergenerational social mobility. Young people from disadvantaged households already face several barriers to extra-curricular engagement and the pandemic seems to have exacerbated this.

But what might be some other potential implications of differences in continuing engagement in extra-curricular activities? Our follow-up analysis dives deeper into the relationship between extra-curricular engagement and quantity of exercise with student health and wellbeing, finding positive impacts on mental health and self-esteem.

This is the first piece in a two-part analysis.

Persistent absenteeism: Who is missing school since the pandemic?

By Blog Editor, on 1 June 2023

Xin Shao, Jake Anders, and Lindsey Macmillan

Since the COVID-19 pandemic there has been a worrying rise in school absence rates, raising concerns about the detrimental impact on young people’s education. This is a key reason that tackling absence is one of CEPEO’s policy priorities — including better understanding its root causes.

The latest attendance data from the Department for Education (DfE) show that absence rates remain significantly higher than before the pandemic. Missing school can have negative impacts on pupils’ outcomes including educational attainment, wellbeing and wider development. However, as yet there is very little robust evidence about which pupils are most likely to be absent from school since the COVID-19 pandemic, and the potential reasons for this absence.

Improving our understanding of the main challenges to school attendance is important so that effective, targeted policies can be developed to tackle this issue. In this blog post, we provide new evidence on some key drivers of school absences, including providing empirical analysis of qualitative reasons raised in the recent inquiry by House of Commons Education Committee into persistent absence. We use data from the COVID Social Mobility & Opportunities study (COSMO), one of the only studies available to look at this issue, by tracking a cohort of young people currently in Year 13 (or equivalent) whose education has been significantly affected by the disruption of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The DfE’s definition of a persistent absentee is “a pupil having 46 or more sessions of absence (authorised or unauthorised) during the academic year, around 15% of overall absence.” We define persistent absence here as whether pupils met this criterion during their Year 11 in academic year 2020/21. Schools fully reopened at the start of this academic year following the initial disruption of the pandemic, however in-person schooling was suspended again during the third national lockdown, from 4 January 2021 until 8 March.

A picture of persistent absence in COSMO

About 10% of our sample met the definition of persistent absentees. But this overall rate masks important variation associated with the challenges that young people are facing in their lives. There are important differences in persistent absence by socio-economic background and food poverty, demographics, mental health experiences, and SEND status.

Pupils who are eligible for FSM were 14 percentage points more likely than non-FSM eligible pupils to be persistently absent from school (Figure 1), indicating that pupils from disadvantaged family backgrounds are more likely to have school attendance problems.

Figure 1. Percentage of persistent absentees by FSM eligibility


Notes. Analysis is weighted to account for sampling design and non-response. FSM eligibility over the last 6 years. N = 8,774.

Persistent absenteeism also varies significantly by household food poverty (Figure 2). Pupils living in households who have suffered from hunger were 13 percentage points more likely to persistently absent from school, compared to those living in households that did not experience hunger. Pupils from families who used a food bank were 18 percentage points more likely to be persistent absentees (Figure 3), compared to their peers whose families never used a food bank.

Figure 2. Percentage of persistent absentees by food poverty in households

Notes. Analysis is weighted to account for sampling design and non-response. N = 6,297.


Figure 3. Percentages of persistent absentees by food bank usage

Notes. Analysis is weighted to account for sampling design and non-response. N = 6,220.

Boys are slightly more likely than girls to be persistently absent from school (Figure 4), while differences by ethnicity are somewhat larger, with White pupils more likely than other ethnic groups to be persistent absentees (Figure 5).

Figure 4. Percentage of persistent absentees by gender

Notes. Analysis is weighted to account for sampling design and non-response. N = 8,563.

Figure 5. Percentage of persistent absentees by ethnicity

Notes. Analysis is weighted to account for sampling design and non-response. N= 8,686.

Pupils facing challenges with their mental health were also more likely to be persistently absent from school, compared to those do not have mental health problems (Figure 6).

Figure 6. Percentages of persistent absentees by high psychological distress

Notes. Analysis is weighted to account for sampling design and non-response. High psychological distress defined using a score of 4 or above in the General Health Questionnaire, GHQ-12. N = 8,508.

Even starker is the inequality in persistent absence by pupils’ Special Educational Needs (SEN) status. Students with SEN status were 21 percentage points more likely to be persistently absent from school than those without SEN status (Figure 7).

Figure 7. Percentages of persistent absentees by SEN

Notes. Analysis is weighted to account for sampling design and non-response. SEN = Special Educational Needs. N = 8,772.


Key drivers of persistent absenteeism

While there are stark differences in persistent absenteeism across socio-economic background, mental health experiences and SEN status, these factors are likely to be related to each other, so we could be seeing the same underlying difference in multiple ways. We can therefore consider changes in the probability of persistent absence related to each of these factors, while holding the others fixed, and comparing otherwise similar pupils in terms of family background (parental education and occupation) and prior attainment.

Figure 8 shows the probability of being persistent absentees from each particular group, including those pupils living in a household that used a food bank, having SEN status, and being at elevated risk of psychological distress, relative to those pupils not in each of these groups, but with similar prior attainment, and similarly educated parents, working in similar occupations.

Pupils whose family needed to use foodbanks were over 5 percentage points more likely to be persistently absent, even compared to pupils who had similar family backgrounds and prior attainment, but whose family didn’t need to use foodbanks. Similarly, pupils who had SEN status were over 10 percentage points more likely to be persistently absent than pupils without SEN status but otherwise similar. Pupils facing mental health challenges were over 2 percentage points more likely to be persistently absent than otherwise similar pupils not facing high psychological distress levels. Each of these factors feature heavily in qualitative reports of school absenteeism beyond a breakdown of the social contract between parents and schools, and do not fit the caricature of a school truant who is missing school simply because they don’t feel like turning up.


Figure 8. Change in probability of pupils living in households that used a food bank, pupils with SEN status and pupils with high psychological distress being persistently absent from school, relative to their otherwise similar peers

Notes. Reporting change in probability (marginal effects). N = 4,387; Residual Degrees of Freedom: 2456. The model also includes gender, ethnicity, parental education, parental occupational status, and Key Stage 2 prior attainment; SEN = Special Educational Needs


Moving beyond standard approaches to absenteeism?

Understanding rates of persistent absenteeism, beyond a breakdown of the social contact between parents and schools, is crucial for tackling the issue. Building on existing qualitative evidence, we show substantial differences in experiences associated with financial instability, mental health, and pupils’ SEN status, over and above young people’s demographic and socioeconomic backgrounds. This highlights the potential to tackle a number of these factors directly to alleviate possible reasons for young people not attending school.

In particular, reviewing eligibility for free school meals to help lessen the pressure on families struggling to provide food for everyone in the family, or who are having to organise their lives accessing food banks in a way that may be disruptive to children’s education, appears an important factor. Similarly, ensuring that schools have the funding and capacity to support SEN pupils so that they can attend school is likely to be another way to reduce persistent absenteeism. Finally, these findings again highlight the importance of mental health support for young people, both for its own sake, but also because mental health challenges appear to be negatively affecting young people’s ability to engage with their education.


Aspects of the analysis use administrative data from the Department for Education (DfE)’s National Pupil Database (NPD), where consent was gained for this linkage (73% of young people), with additional weighting carried out to ensure (insofar as is possible) representativeness of analysis using linked administrative data. This work was produced using statistical data from the DfE processed in the Office for National Statistics’ (ONS) Secure Research Service (SRS). The use of the DfE statistical data in this work does not imply the endorsement of the DfE or ONS in relation to the interpretation or analysis of the statistical data. This work uses research datasets, which may not exactly reproduce National Statistics aggregates.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this blog post incorrectly referred to this absence as being during this cohort’s Year 12 (academic year 2021/22), rather than their Year 11 (academic year 2020/21).

Young people’s physical health during the COVID-19 pandemic

By Blog Editor, on 30 January 2023

Jake Anders is Principal Investigator of the COVID Social Mobility & Opportunities study (COSMO), and an Associate Professor and Deputy Director at UCL Centre for Education Policy & Equalising Opportunities.

Although young people were among those least likely to be directly affected by severe effects of COVID-19, they were not immune from its immediate effects on health. We are better able to understand implications of this using data from the COVID Social Mobility & Opportunities study (COSMO). The study includes a representative sample of over 13,000 young people across England, who were aged 14–15 at the onset of the pandemic, and 16–17 during the academic year 2020/21 when our first data were collected.

COSMO’s purpose is also wider than the direct health impacts of COVID-19. As such, this blog post — drawing on our latest COSMO briefing published today — also takes a wider look at young people’s health behaviours during this period.

Young people’s experiences of COVID-19

When first taking part in COSMO (between October 2021 and March 2022) almost half of the cohort reported having had COVID-19 (of whom 28% had had this confirmed by a test, likely with many having been affected before widespread testing was available).

Many of these young people will have experienced relative mild — or at least, transient — symptoms. But this was not the case for all. 1 in 5 of young people who reported having had COVID-19 (just under 10% of the cohort as a whole) reported that they continued to experience symptoms more than 4 weeks after first catching the virus: the accepted definition of Long COVID. Among this group, a quarter described their case of Long COVID as limiting their ability to carry out daily activities a lot.

Figure 1: Proportion reporting a case of severe long COVID by deprivation quintile group

Furthermore, there were inequalities in young people’s chances of experiencing long COVID. Among those who reported having caught COVID-19, those from less socio-economically advantaged backgrounds were more likely to report that this had persisted into a case of long COVID. This is despite no difference in reporting having contracted COVID-19 between these groups. What, then, explains differences in this persistence? Reasons for these inequalities are rather uncertain. One hypothesis is that getting sufficient rest is important for COVID-19 recovery, and this may be easier to achieve for some groups than others. Another is that pre-existing differences in overall health levels associated with socio-economic status pre-infection explain risk of prolonged disease.

Educational consequences of physical health during the pandemic

Young people who reported having experienced severe Long COVID received lower teacher-assessed GCSEs than their peers who had never had COVID-19. Given the differences discussed above between young people who experienced severe Long COVID, we wanted to ensure that this was not simply an artefact of these differences. After adjusting statistically for differences in demographics, socio-economic status, and prior attainment, it was still the case that young people who had experienced severe long COVID performed worse than comparable peers. The size of this difference is very roughly equivalent to two months of learning.

Figure 2: Differences in GCSE teacher assessed grades by shielding status and severe long COVID

Notes: Differences reported have been standardised. Severe long COVID analysis is compared to those who reported not having had COVID at all.

Those who were asked to shield during the pandemic — because pre-existing medical conditions meant that they were at the highest risk of severe illness if they caught COVID-19 — also received lower grades in their teacher assessed GCSEs than their peers. 8% of the COSMO cohort reported being asked to shield and — after adjusting for demographics, socio-economic status, and prior attainment — had lower GCSE grades very roughly equivalent to four months of learning.

Young people’s wider health

COSMO also allows us to shine a light more broadly on the health of this generation of young people.

Continuing a trend seen across successive cohorts, this cohort of 16–17 year olds are less likely to drink alcohol than those who came before them. 63% say they have ever done so, compared to 85% of a comparable group of 16–17 year olds in 2007. Across various measures, pupils from advantaged backgrounds (such as those attending private schools, or in state schools with more advantaged intakes) are more likely to report ever having drunk alcohol, and reported drinking more frequently.

This group of young people are more likely to have ever used an e-cigarette (33%) than to have ever smoked a cigarette (23%). However, regular e-cigarette use is much lower than this might imply. Just 6% report using e-cigarettes once a day or more. In contrast to alcohol use, those from less advantaged backgrounds are more likely to use e-cigarettes than their more advantaged peers.

Just under 1 in 6 of this cohort of young people report having ever tried any illegal drugs. Among those who have, almost all had tried cannabis. Just 4% of the sample reported having tried any other illegal substance. And similar to the patterning seen with alcohol, those in more advantaged circumstances were more likely to have taken an illegal drug. Those identifying as White or Mixed ethnic background are far more likely to report having tried illegal drugs than any other ethnic groups.


With attention on issues around COVID-19 fading, we should not forget its continuing effect on those for whom it was a particularly debilitating illness to experience. Some continue to suffer from long COVID. Even those who have recovered have seen implications for their wider lives and life chances, such as lower academic attainment scores for those who experienced severe long COVID. These impacts also seem to have reinforced existing health and socioeconomic inequalities.

COSMO also helps us shine a wider light on the experiences of this cohort of young people, and quite how much this has changed compared to earlier generations. Substantially reduced drinking of alcohol compared to earlier generations, low rates of drug use, and the emergence of e-cigarette use all raise questions about implications for future health, too.

There is more detail on these findings, as well as a wider range of health impacts and behaviour of the COSMO cohort, in our latest briefing note. You can also find our earlier briefing notes on the study website.

How has Covid-19 affected inequalities between state and private schools?

By Blog Editor, on 5 December 2022

By Jake Anders

Covid-19 caused significant and widespread disruption to young people’s education. But the effects were not the same for everyone. Many pre-existing inequalities have been exacerbated, including those between state schools and independent schools.

The pandemic has had a major effect on the education and wider lives of children and young people, ranging from access to early years provision, learning losses among school age pupils, and broader effects on mental health and wellbeing (Farmer, 2020). But the impact has not been the same for everyone.

It has become clear that school closures and online learning due to the pandemic have exacerbated existing inequalities in education. Those from disadvantaged backgrounds and pupils with additional needs (including special educational needs and disabilities) have been especially badly affected by the disruption. In this article, we focus particularly on inequalities that emerged through differences in the responses of state and private schools.

Less than 10% of young people in England attend a private school during their education. Nevertheless, these institutions have an outsized influence on the persistence of educational advantage. They are highly socially selective, with the vast majority of those attending private schools coming from families in the top 10% of the income distribution (Anders et al., 2020; Henseke et al., 2021).

Further, the gap in resources between state and private schools is large (Green et al, 2017). It has grown larger over the past decade: from £3,100 per pupil per year in 2010/11 to £6,500 by 2020/21 (Sibieta, 2021).

Based on a combination of these factors, people who have attended private schools are disproportionately likely to be employed in high-status jobs later in life (Sullivan et al., 2016). Privately educated graduates are a third more likely to enter a high-status occupation than state-educated peers from similar families and neighbourhoods (Macmillan et al., 2015).

Early on in the pandemic, there were many anecdotes about differences in school responses, emphasising some schools’ rapid move to live online lessons. But much of the data available to test these narratives only covered state schools (a notable exception is Andrew et al., 2020).

Things have changed with new data from the COVID Social Mobility & Opportunities study (COSMO). This cohort study of young people in Year 10 at the pandemic’s onset provides high quality new data to explore the issue. Here, we consider some of the differences that emerged between state and private schools due to the large resource differences and why they matter.

Schooling in lockdown

When the first national lockdown began in the spring of 2020, schools played a vital role in responding to myriad challenges facing their pupils. With concerns about welfare and wellbeing, it was understandable that tasks such as free school meal voucher distribution, checking on how pupils’ families were coping in terms of mental health, welfare and food, and providing information on where they could obtain support distracted from efforts to organise online learning for pupils. This was particularly acute for schools with many pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds (Moss et al., 2020).

With more resources and fewer issues to solve, private schools were able to move quickly to set up alternatives to in-person classes. For example, 94% of private school participants who responded to the COSMO study received live online lessons during the first national lockdown.

This was 30 percentage points higher than the rate reported among those in comprehensive schools. The vast majority (84%) also reported receiving more than three online classes per school day during this period, compared with 41% in state grammar schools and 33% in state comprehensive schools.

Figure 1: Provision of live online lessons, by school characteristics, lockdown one (March-June 2020) and lockdown three (January-March 2021)

Source: COVID Social Mobility & Opportunities study (COSMO).
Notes: N=12,505, including 11,317 in state comprehensive group; analysis weighted to account for study design and young person non-response.

There were not national school closures during the second lockdown (in the autumn of 2020). By the third national lockdown in early 2021, state schools with the most advantaged intakes had largely caught up with private schools’ remote learning provision.

Pupils in these schools were now similarly likely to be offered remote lessons (around 95% in state grammar and state comprehensive schools with the least disadvantaged intakes). But they were still not providing as many per day, with 82% of those in state grammars and 71% in the least deprived state comprehensives reporting receiving more than three online classes per day, compared with 93% in private schools.

On the other hand, state schools with more disadvantaged intakes had made less progress on both fronts – 80% of pupils in these schools reported receiving any online lessons and 53% more than three per day – remaining behind in terms of online lesson provision.

Pupils at independent schools were also more likely to have regular contact with a teacher outside class during lockdowns. Here, state schools caught up slightly in the third lockdown.

But state comprehensive pupils were more than twice as likely to report difficulties in accessing support from teachers than pupils at private schools (17% compared with 8% in the third lockdown).

Pupils at private schools also reported spending more time on schoolwork during lockdowns than their state school peers. This added up to more than one extra working day per week of time spent on schoolwork in both the first and third lockdowns.

Many of these differences are not down to the schools directly. Rather, they are due to challenges faced depending on pupils’ circumstances.

For example, almost a quarter of pupils attending state comprehensives with the most deprived intakes did not have access to a suitable device for joining remote classes in the first lockdown. This figure was under 2% for pupils at independent schools.

Similarly, 13% of those at state comprehensive schools reported issues due to having to share devices needed to take part in online learning. Only 4% at independent schools faced the same issue.

Catch up

Given these inequalities, it is unsurprising that young people at state schools were more likely to think that their progress has suffered because of the Covid-19 disruption. In state schools, 81% of pupils reported this, compared with 72% at private schools. To address this, a much larger effort to support young people in state schools to catch up is needed.

This is especially important as the gap in disruption to learning did not stop with the resumption of in-person schooling. For example, teacher absence has taken a larger toll on state schools in the post-restrictions period of the pandemic.

Staff absence rates due to Covid-19 infections in state schools have been higher than private schools. In a snapshot survey in early 2022, 20% of state school teachers reported that at least one in ten staff in their school were absent. Only 12% of private school staff reported the same (Sutton Trust, 2022).

What have we learned about differences in catch-up activities between state and private schools? Evidence from the COSMO study finds that 53% of young people took part in at least one type of catch-up activity.

This figure was 54% for young people in state comprehensive schools, and slightly lower at 51% for those in independent schools. So, there is some evidence of differential catch up weighted towards the state sector, but it is not large. The definition of catch-up activities is wide, from extra online classes to one-to-one tuition. The latter of these is most likely to have had significant catch-up benefits (Burgess, 2020).

Focusing on the offer of tutoring, this was more likely for young people at independent schools (52% compared with 41% in state comprehensive schools). This is despite the government’s flagship National Tutoring Programme (NTP).

The NTP was meant to target this sort of provision to pupils who needed it most. Unfortunately, its reach was narrower than hoped, with an official evaluation report highlighting that ‘only around a half of school leads and staff felt that all or most of the pupils selected were disadvantaged’ (Lord et al., 2022).

That said, pupils in independent schools were less likely to have taken part in tutoring than those in state schools. Among independent school pupils, 23% said they had taken up this offer, compared with 27% in comprehensive schools. This seems to reflect pupils in private schools being less likely to feel that they needed this help, even if it was being offered. An equally important aspect of pupils’ ability to re-engage fully in their education is their mental health. Pupils attending private schools were more than twice as likely to report that their school mental health support was very good (26%) than state school pupils (10%) (Holt-White et al., 2022)

Figure 2: Whether participant agreed they had caught up with lost learning during the pandemic, by gender and school type

Source: COSMO Notes: N=12,149; analysis is weighted for survey design and young person non-response.

Despite catch-up efforts, pupils at state comprehensive schools were the least likely to think they had been able to catch up (34%). This compared with 58% of pupils at independent schools who felt this way. Almost half (46%) of pupils at comprehensive schools said they had not been able to catch up, while just over a quarter (27%) at independent schools felt the same.

Assessment during Covid-19

Because of the disruption to schooling, the government decided to replace GCSE and A-level exams with teacher assessed grades in 2020 (and centre assessed grades in 2021). Some adaptation was unavoidable, given the Covid-19 restrictions. But many highlighted the importance of retaining externally set and marked assessment (Anders et al., 2021).

Indeed, there is evidence of biases in teacher assessed grades that affect ethnic minority groups, those from lower income backgrounds, boys and those with special educational needs (Burgess and Greaves, 2013; Campbell, 2015). Top grades awarded in the two years in which teacher or centre assessed grades were used jumped up compared with the years before.

But the increase was most prevalent in private schools (Anders and Macmillan, 2022). The proportion of A grades awarded at A-level rose from 44.7% in 2019 to 70.4% in private schools in 2021 (compared with a rise from 24.1% to 42.1% in state academy schools).

Some of this could have been due to the differences in provision highlighted above. Yet, the particularly dramatic fall in grades for private schools in 2022 – a cohort that had more of their education disrupted – casts doubt on this.

We can also use findings from the COSMO study to understand differences in assessment practices between the sectors. Pupils in this cohort received teacher assessed grades for their GCSEs in 2021.

Private school pupils were more likely to say that their teacher assessed grades were better than expected than state school pupils. Likewise, they were much less likely to report that they did worse than expected. As with the changes in grades over time, this suggests a more generous approach to teacher assessed grades in private schools.

Whatever the exact mechanisms, these results represent a significant widening of the qualifications gap between state and private school pupils. This will have had – and will continue to have – significant implications for pupils’ future educational and employment trajectories.


Taken together, we can see that there are a range of ways in which disruption as a result of the pandemic has laid the groundwork for increased inequalities between pupils who attended state and private schools throughout their lives.

Existing gaps have been reinforced by differences in schools’ capacity to implement quick and effective responses at the outbreak of the pandemic.

It seems unlikely that these inequalities have been fully addressed with the fairly small differences in catch-up offerings – pupils themselves reinforce this view. And the use of teacher assessment in the place of usual exams appears to have baked in the results.

We will not know the full extent of the implications of this disruption for years to come. The COSMO study is designed to try to help us to do exactly that.

Some of the differences may unwind. For example, if some pupils’ grades were flattered more by teacher assessment than others, we would not expect this in itself to result in long-term productivity gains and hence to affect individuals’ wages (Wyness et al., 2021). Nevertheless, the knock-on effects (for example, access to university) may still reinforce the educational gap.

Ultimately, the early signs are not promising for inequalities in life chances between state and privately educated pupils as a result of the pandemic. We must not forget about the young people who have been disproportionately affected during this time.

As the pandemic subsides, it is easy to focus on ‘getting back to normal’, but in reality, extraordinary efforts are still needed to try to address these inequalities.

While important in itself, ensuring everyone is given the opportunity to achieve their potential in life is vital to the country’s productivity and, hence, everyone’s future economic prosperity.

This article was first published on the Economics Observatory on 5 December 2022.

Understanding young people’s unequal experience of the pandemic: now and into the future

By Blog Editor, on 13 October 2022

Jake Anders is the Principal Investigator of the COVID Social Mobility & Opportunities study (COSMO), and Associate Professor and Deputy Director of the UCL Centre for Education Policy & Equalising Opportunities (CEPEO)

Today marks an important landmark in the COVID Social Mobility & Opportunities study (COSMO) and, with it, our understanding of the unequal impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on young people’s life chances. After more than 18 months of development and fieldwork, we are releasing initial findings and data from the first wave of this planned cohort study.

Unlike much other research from the pandemic, COSMO comes as close as possible to recruiting a representative group of young people from across the country. This is because it is based on invitations to a random sample of all young people in schools across England, rather than a convenient sample collected for some other purpose who are not, therefore, necessarily similar to the population of young people as a whole. Why does this matter? Having a representative sample gives us increased confidence that our findings paint an accurate picture of the extent and variation in the experiences of this group.

As a result, we are extremely grateful to the more than 13,000 young people across England who responded to our invitation to take part in this study, providing us with details of their experiences to help us build up a picture of the lives of this generation and how it has been disrupted. Through this, COSMO is providing vital new evidence on the effects of the pandemic on the lives of young people, with strong signs that it has severely widened existing educational inequalities: 80% of participants told us their academic progress suffered because of the pandemic’s disruption — a figure that is even higher among those from less advantaged backgrounds. Moreover, there are worrying signs that initial impacts have not been fully addressed by the policy response in this country: only about a third of young people told us they have been able to catch up with their lost learning.

Participants’ views on whether their academic progress has suffered

We are documenting aspects of young people’s experiences during and beyond the pandemic in a series of briefing notes authored by members of the COSMO research team, with the first three of these on ‘lockdown learning’, ‘education recovery and catch up’, and ‘future plans and aspirations’ released today and more to come. These shine a light on important details of young people’s experiences.

Changes to educational plans by COVID-19 status

They highlight, for example, that well over half of young people report some change to their education and career plans because of the pandemic, and that this is particularly the case among those who report more acute direct experiences of COVID-19 itself, raising important questions about the consequences of such shifts if they are realised in the years to come.

They also increase our understanding of barriers to learning in lockdown, helping us to break down the factors that seemed to limit home learning, notably the lack of suitable electronic devices to engage in remote lessons or other online educational activities — this is particularly concerning given that over half of those who lacked such a suitable device told us this need had still not been met at the end of the second period of national school closures.

The extremely rich data from COSMO covering the circumstances and experiences of this representative sample of young people, are now available for other researchers to use to address other vital research questions. COSMO is not just a standalone effort to set out the findings as we see them, but also a resource to support others carrying out research to understand this generation.

But, importantly, COSMO’s ability to tell us about these short-term effects is just the start. COSMO is designed as a cohort study, which means that we aim to continue following the lives of its members over the coming years. Just as we are publishing findings from our first survey, we are just getting started in the process of inviting members of the cohort to take part in the first follow-up. Establishing this link through time will be vital to understanding whether conditions during the pandemic have lasting consequences for decisions that young people make about their wellbeing, education, careers and more. Cohort studies for previous generations, such as the British Cohort Study that continues to follow a group of people born in 1970, have been vital to illuminating our understanding of social mobility in society – extending such understanding to the current generation with their unique experiences completing their education will only become more vital.

Whether or not we think of the pandemic as over, its effects will continue to cast a long shadow, and COSMO will continue to help us to understand this in the years to come.

The challenges of COVID-19 for young people need a new cohort study: introducing COSMO 

By IOE Editor, on 23 April 2021

Jake Anders and Carl Cullinane 

The COVID-19 pandemic and its impact is a generation-defining challengeOne of its most concerning aspects, particularly in the long term, is the already profound effect it has had on young people’s lives. Disruption to their development, wellbeing and education could have substantial, long-lasting effects on later life chances, particularly for those from lower-income homesEvidence is already showing disadvantaged pupils lagging 5 months behind their peers. This poses a unique challenge for educational policy and practice, with the scale of the disruption requiring solutions to match that scale.  

In order to address these impacts, it is vital that we fully understand these effects, and in particular, the disproportionate burden falling on those from certain groups, including those from lower socio-economic backgrounds and minority ethnic groups. This needs high-quality data. Recovering from the effects of the past 12 months will be a longterm project, and to reflect this we need research of similar ambition. 

The COVID Social Mobility and Opportunity Study (COSMO for short), launched today, seeks to play this role, harnessing the power of longitudinal research to capture the experiences of a cohort of young people for whom the pandemic has had an acute impact, and its effects on their educational and career trajectories. 

This country has a grand tradition of cohort studiesincluding the pioneering 1958 National Child Development Study and the 1970 British Cohort StudySuch studies are a key tool in understanding life trajectories and the complex factors that shape them. And they are particularly vital when it comes to measuring the impact of events that are likely to last through someone’s life course. The existing longitudinal studies, including those run by our colleagues in the UCL Centre for Longitudinal Studies, have played a huge role in understanding the impacts of the pandemic on society in the last year. 

But there is a key gap in the current portfolio of cohort studies: and that is the generation of young people at the sharp end of their school education, who would have taken GCSEs this summer, and within a matter of months will be moving onto new pathways at sixth form, further education, traineeships and apprenticeships. The impacts on this group are likely to be profound and long-lasting, and understanding the complex elements that have aggravated or mitigated these impacts is crucial. 

A variety of studies have already collected some such data, providing emerging evidence of inequalities in pupils’ outcomes and experiences of remote schooling. This has highlighted alarming challenges for pupils’ learning and wellbeing. However, to develop a full understanding we require the combination of rich, representative, survey data on topics such as learning loss experiences, wellbeing, and aspirations, linked with administrative data on educational outcomes, and concurrent interventions. We also need to follow up those young people over the next few years as they pass through key stages of education and their early career, to understand what has happened next, ideally long into their working lives. 

Such evidence will be key in shaping policies that can help to alleviate the longterm impacts on young people. Which groups have suffered most and how, how long will these impacts persist, and how can we reduce their effect. These will be fundamental questions for national policymakers, education providers, employers and third sector organisations in the coming years, both in the UK and internationally. 

That’s why we’re extremely excited to be launching COSMO with funding from UK Research and Innovation (UKRI)Ideas to Address COVID-19 response fundOur study will deliver exactly that data over the coming years, helping to inform future policy interventions that will be required, given that the huge effects of the pandemic are only just beginning. As the British Academy pointed out on the anniversary of the first COVID lockdown – this is not going to go away quickly. 

Beginning this autumn, the study will recruit a representative sample of 12,000 current Year 11 pupils across England, with sample boosts for disadvantaged and ethnic minority groups plus targeting of other hard-to-reach groups. Young person, parent, and school questionnaires – enhanced with administrative data from DfE– will collect rich data on young people’s experiences of education and wellbeing during the past challenging 12 months, along with information on their transitions into post-16 pathways via this summer’s unusual GCSE assessment process. 

The study is a collaboration between the UCL Centre for Education Policy & Equalising Opportunities (CEPEO), the UCL Centre for Longitudinal Studies (CLS) and the Sutton Trust. The study will harness CEPEO’s cutting-edge research focused on equalising opportunities across the life course, seeking to improve education policy and wider practices to achieve this goal. The Sutton Trust also brings 25 years of experience using research to inform the public and achieve policy change in the area of social mobility.  

COSMO will also be part of the family of cohort studies housed in the UCL Centre for Longitudinal Studies, whose expertise in life course research is world-renowned. We are also working closely with Kantar Publicwho will lead on delivering the fieldwork for this large study, alongside NatCen Social Research. More broadly still, all our work will be co-produced with project stakeholders including the Department for Education and the Office for Students. We are also working with partners in Scotland and Wales to maximise comparability across the nations. 

We are excited for COSMO to make a big contribution both to the landscape of educational research and to the post-pandemic policy environment, and we are delighted to be getting to work delivering on this promise over the coming years.