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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.

Notes

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).

Why we should introduce a post-qualification applications (PQA) system for post-18 education

By Blog Editor, on 27 April 2023

Gill Wyness

The UK is the only country in the world in which young people make their university applications before they have received their exam results. Instead, pupils apply to university with grades that have been predicted by their teachers.

The problem is predicted grades aren’t always accurate. Analysis of UCAS data has shown that only 16% of applicants achieve the A-level grades they were predicted to achieve, while 75% of students are over-predicted. The same research showed that among equally high attaining students, disadvantaged students receive less generous predictions compared to more advantaged students, highlighting that there are systematic differences in predicted grades across student groups.

Teacher predicted grades have always been controversial, but were thrown into the spotlight during the pandemic, when exams were cancelled, and teacher predictions were pupils’ only means of proving their achievement levels. Of course, there will always be some degree of error in predicting student grades. Research has shown that even when relying on machine learning and advanced statistical techniques, it is only possible to accurately predict the grades of 1 in 4 students from their attainment in previous years and characteristics. This demonstrates that teachers are certainly not to blame for inaccuracies in predicted grades, and also highlights that this difficult and time-consuming task may not be an ideal use of their limited resources. But it also demonstrates that we cannot simply shift the responsibility of the assignment of predicted grades away from them easily.

The fact that there are systematic errors in predicted grades is important. Predicted grades are an integral process of students’ decision-making, being the main piece of evidence they submit to university courses. The fact that high attaining disadvantaged students and state school students receive less generous grades than their more advantaged and independent school counterparts is likely to have consequences for their decisions on which courses to apply to. High attaining disadvantaged students are more likely to ‘undermatch’ and enter courses which are less selective than expected, given their grades, which leads to higher chances of dropping out, receiving a lower class degree, and earning less in the future.

The alternative to teacher predicted grades, used by every other major education system worldwide, is a post-qualification application (PQA) system. This would allow students to make university applications after they have taken their A-level exams and received their results. This system would be more accurate, fairer, and bring the UK in line with the rest of the world in allowing students to make these life changing application decisions based on full information.

It is possible to move towards PQA with minimum disruption to the current education system. Two proposals for achieving this are as follows: the first option would be to condense the final exam period to 4 weeks, and accelerate exam marking to 7-8 weeks. Examinations would take place in early May. Students would return to school afterwards, receiving their results in mid-July, in time for an in-school ‘applications week’. Universities would then have a month to process and make offers at the end of August, and students would have a short time to accept their favoured choice.

A second option would be to shorten the school summer holidays, allowing pupils to sit their exams and receive their grades during term time, and then make their university applications before the school holidays begin. Alternatively, first year university students could start later, giving them more time to process applications. We outline these options in more detail in a previous blog post.

We cannot ignore the flaws of a system that grants and denies young people the opportunity to have full information on their achievement levels before making such important and life-changing decisions. Put simply, if we were starting from scratch, no-one would design a system like this one. Young people deserve the chance to have their applications assessed in light of their actual achievements.

Do contextual admissions hold back productivity?

By Blog Editor, on 20 December 2022

By Gill Wyness, Lindsey Macmillan, Claire Crawford and Richard Murphy.

There are substantial financial gains to attending university, and gains are especially high for the most selective institutions, from which many of the highest paying professions recruit. Recognising this, many parents send their children to independent schools, believing that this will dramatically increase their chances of gaining a place at a highly competitive institution. But a recent investigation by The Telegraph suggests the independent school stranglehold on Oxbridge is under threat, with the likelihood of their pupils receiving an offer dropping dramatically over the last five years. Commentators have blamed the practise of contextual admissions, which give pupils from state schools preferential entry – in some cases even when they have lower entry grades than those from private schools. Those against the practise argue it amounts to “class discrimination” and “social engineering”.

But the reality is that there is a clear economic rationale for contextual admissions. Students from disadvantaged backgrounds have typically received far less investment in their education than their more advantaged peers – including, but not limited to, the fact that they tend to attend lower quality schools. We would expect these disadvantages to translate into lower grades for a given level of underlying ‘ability’, reducing promising but disadvantaged students’ chances of gaining a place at a selective university. Grades are therefore contextualised for equity reasons, to “level the playing field” at this crucial life stage.

While there can be little doubt that contextual admissions improve equity, good economic policies should also be efficient. But many are concerned that contextual admissions may be inefficient. This would be the case if the lower attaining state school students who were given preferential entry to Oxbridge found themselves struggling academically, did poorly in their degrees and were less productive in the labour market. If their net gain from Oxbridge (versus how well they would have done at a lower quality institution) is lower than that which would have been experienced by the independent school students they displaced (taking account of how well the displaced student would have done at Oxbridge versus where they eventually ended up), this would constitute an efficiency loss. We should consider this equity-efficiency trade-off when we think about contextual admissions.

So, does it matter which students go to which universities? Are there higher returns for higher achieving students attending highly selective courses? Could the practice of contextual admissions be said to be damaging productivity or hampering economic growth?

One area of research we can look to, to inform this debate, is the area of student to university match. Research in this area considers the types of courses that students of different achievement levels attend, asking which is the most important for earnings: student achievement, course quality, or the interaction – or match – between the two. This helps address the question of whether students have better outcomes at universities to which they are better ‘matched’.

The evidence from this relatively small area of literature is mixed, however, with much of the evidence based on the effects of affirmative action bans in the United States. This has strong parallels with the use of contextualised admissions, in that it concerns the use of race (and other factors) to judge university applicants in order to improve the diversity of student populations, and is just as controversial in the US as it is here, with ongoing legal action currently being brought against two top universities – Harvard and University of North Carolina – which has now made its way to the Supreme Court.

One paper (Arcidiacono et al, 2016) examines the impact of the ban on affirmative action in California in 1998. After the ban, minority students no longer received preferential admissions to highly selective universities like Berkeley. This study argues that lower achieving minority students at top-ranked campuses would have higher science graduation rates had they attended lower-ranked campuses – in other words it was economically inefficient to send them to these universities.

However, a more recent paper studying the same affirmative action ban (Bleemer, 2022) found that it harmed underrepresented minority students by lowering their degree attainment and wages, as after the ban they were cascaded into lower quality universities. Indeed, the study suggested that that affirmative action’s net benefits for underrepresented minority applicants exceed its net costs for the white and Asian applicants at most risk of being displaced. The two papers use quite different approaches to study the question which may provide some explanation of why they find opposing results (with the former paper using a structural model, and the latter using nonexperimental methods). Other papers (Dillon and Smith, 2020; Light and Strayer, 2000) have found some evidence of student-university match effects, but have also found that these are far outweighed by course quality effects, suggesting students of all ability levels should try to get onto the best quality course they can to maximise their earnings. In other words, disadvantaged students are just as likely to benefit from going to a high quality course as those with higher attainment on entry, meaning contextual admissions are unlikely to harm them individually – while any efficiency losses are likely to be small.

A related strand of literature from the UK compares degree outcomes for students from different backgrounds or different schools with the same achievement on entry. These studies (e.g. Crawford, 2014a,b) find that students from private schools are, on average, more likely to drop-out, less likely to complete their degree and less likely to graduate with a 1st or 2:1 than state school students entering the same course with the same grades. This hints at the fact that achievement in school does not capture ‘ability’ or ‘potential to succeed’ in the same way for those from different school types, providing support for the rationale underlying contextual admissions.

Given the scarcity of evidence, and its mixed results, it is hard to argue that there are likely to be substantial efficiency losses to society from contextual admissions – while there are undoubtedly equity gains. There are still vast socio-economic disparities in entry rates to highly selective institutions in the UK. These disparities occur because those from lower socio-economic backgrounds typically achieve lower grades than those from richer backgrounds, who have had the benefit of a lifetime of high-quality education and parental input.

Contextualising admissions is one of the few tools we have at our disposal to help students with great potential to gain a place at a selective institution. We should not outlaw this practice without good evidence that it significantly harms productivity.

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.

Conclusion

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.

Turbulence on the glide path: A-level results 2022

By Blog Editor, on 18 August 2022

Jake Anders and Lindsey Macmillan

This year sees A-level (or equivalent) results for the cohort of pupils who were on the cusp of sitting their GCSEs in 2020 when exams were first cancelled due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Now exams are back, much to the dismay of many who believe that teacher-assessed grades should become the new norm. Here at CEPEO, we’ve regularly made the case for externally set and externally marked exams, based on academic evidence that teacher assessment leads to biases against certain groups. But what has the return of exams meant for results?

The implementation of a “glide path” has been successful – generally speaking, the results are pretty much halfway between those from 2019 and 2021. While the headlines are all focused on grades being down on last year, they are, if anything, slightly more generous than might have been predicted given the intention to deal with half of the grade inflation from teacher assessment seen in 2020 and 2021. This will be driven by the fact that these weren’t strictly exams in the 2019 sense – leniency in marking was encouraged and pupils had extra information in advance of exams, which may also have had other consequences that we’ll come back to shortly.

They don’t mean that learning loss for these students is no longer a problem – since the overall level of grades was decided by that “glide path”. As such, we do not know if this group of students would have achieved as good grades as their peers in 2019 despite the disruption. This is particularly the case given some remaining incomparability with 2019 around leniency in marking and advance notice of exam content. Ongoing concerns about learning loss, its consequences, and support for catching up need to be informed by other evidence, not allayed by these results.

Regional differences present a worrying picture for inequalities – the gap in the proportion of pupils achieving A or above at A level has increased between regions, from 7.3ppts in 2019 to 8.2ppts in 2022. So, London and the South East are continuing to pull away from other areas while the North East and Yorkshire and the Humber are particularly being left behind. This trend of Southern regions pulling ahead was also evident in the Key Stage 2 data released last month, and will provide a big headache for a government that has put ‘levelling up’ at the heart of what they plan to achieve.

Distribution of grades in 2019 and 2022 by English region

Source: JCQ

A mixed picture across centre type – FE colleges and independent schools have seen the biggest absolute declines in the proportion of A-levels awarded A or above. For independent schools, this is not altogether surprising given their huge grade inflation from 2019 to 2021, which saw a massive 25.7ppt increase in the proportion of pupils achieving A or above over the period, and over 70% of all private school pupils awarded an A or above in 2021. This number has returned to a more ‘reasonable’ 58% for 2022. Two points to make here: First, this highlights the extent of grade inflation in this type of centre during the period of teacher assessment. Second, this is still an extremely high proportion of pupils achieving a grade A or above, which could be indicative of private school pupils being better placed to make use of the additional information on exam content made available in advance this year, as well as the advantages that private school pupils had in terms of relative learning loss during the pandemic.

FE colleges are far more puzzling – they have seen a similar absolute decline in the proportion achieving A or above, but from a much lower base. They saw a 16.5ppt rise in pupils achieving A or above from 2019 to 2021, only 29.2% reached this level of achievement by 2021. This has fallen back down to 16.5% in 2022. Somewhat speculatively, it seems plausible that students in FE colleges were, in contrast to those at independent schools, particularly badly affected by the disruption wrought by COVID-19.

Percentage of A-levels awarded A*/A by centre type in 2019, 2021 and 2022

Source: https://www.gov.uk/government/news/guide-to-as-and-a-level-results-in-england-summer-2022

Grammar schools, on the other hand, have found themselves performing at a level that is almost comparable with that seen in 2021, despite the different type of assessment, and 14.1ppts higher than 2019. One explanation for this could be, like private schools, that grammar school teachers and pupils were better placed to use the additional information released in advance of exams this year, focusing on a far narrower set of curricula. Additionally, this may be the first indication (through exam results at least) that pupils from more advantaged backgrounds were less constrained by learning loss during the pandemic.

In many ways, these results have not told us much we did not already know – it was already pretty clear that independent school grades, especially, were artificially inflated by teacher assessment, although the percentage coming back down now challenges those who told a tale of Covid learning loss advantages last year. We already knew that the impacts of COVID-19 disruption were likely to be unequal. And we already knew that this was going to be an extremely tough transition for those young people in the middle of it, rightly proud of what they have achieved through difficult circumstances, but unsure of what it all means compared to their peers one year above or below them.

The 2021 Autumn Budget and Spending Review: what does it mean for educational inequalities?

By Blog Editor, on 28 October 2021

Claire Crawford

The pandemic has disrupted life for everyone, but children and young people have seen perhaps the biggest changes to their day-to-day lives, with long periods spent away from school and their friends leading to significant rises in mental health difficulties and a substantial reduction in learning. Moreover, these challenges have not been felt equally: the evidence suggests that the pandemic has also led to a rise in inequalities between children from different socio-economic backgrounds, from the early years through to secondary school and beyond.

A budget and multi-year spending review delivered against a backdrop of the highest peace-time borrowing levels ever, and by a chancellor on a ‘moral’ mission to limit the size of the state, was unlikely to deliver the sort of investments in education that Sir Kevan Collins hoped to see when he took the role of ‘catch-up tsar’ earlier this year. But what did it deliver for education? And is it likely to help roll back the rises in educational inequalities that the pandemic has generated?

Early years

While it is positive to see some recognition of the need for a higher funding rate to be paid to early education providers to cover the delivery of the early education entitlements for 2, 3 and 4 year olds, the amount earmarked – £170m in 2024-25 – does not represent the substantial investment that many in the sector have been calling for: certainly nowhere near the £2.60 per hour increase that was estimated to be needed to fully fund the entitlement, enabling providers to deliver these hours without incurring a loss, or by charging for ‘extras’ (such as food or nappies) or increasing fees for other children in order to cover costs.

We await the details of exactly what this means for the official funding rate per hour. Still, for some idea of scale, spending on all early education entitlements – the universal 15 hour entitlement for 3 and 4 year olds, the additional 15 hours for 3 and 4 year olds via the extended entitlement, and the 15 hour entitlement for disadvantaged 2 year olds – was around £3.8bn in 2019-20. 170m represents less than a 5% increase on this figure. Putting it another way, in 2019-20, a total of around 1.75 million children were benefitting from each of the free early education entitlements. If the number of children taking up these places was to remain unchanged between 2019-20 and 2024-25, this suggests that early education providers would only receive around £100 per year more per child than they do now. In reality, the population of 2, 3 and 4 year olds is expected to fall over the next few years, which – when coupled with the reduction in take-up of the early education entitlements that we have seen over the course of the pandemic – may mean that the actual increase in funding rates is higher than 5%. But not much higher.

Likewise, while greater investment in family support services is also welcome, the much-trumpeted £500m increase represents less than half of the reduction in spending on Sure Start Children’s Centres that has taken place over the last decade, falling by over £1bn (around two thirds) in real-terms from a peak of around £1.8bn in 2009-10. A start, perhaps, but not the transformative ‘Start for Life’ that the rhetoric surrounding this announcement would suggest.

Schools

Yesterday’s announcements on schools were dominated by the news that school funding would return to real-terms levels last seen in 2010. Not much to write home about, you might think. But there was also only a small amount of additional money for education catch-up, including an increase in the ‘recovery premium’ – catch-up money targeted towards pupils from lower income families – for secondary school pupils. While it is positive to see funds being targeted towards the pupils most in need of support, our work has shown that the differences in remote learning experiences while schools were closed to most pupils varied substantially by socio-economic background, and whether the roughly £5bn allocated to catch-up will be enough to redress the balance is unclear. It certainly amounts to a lot less than is being spent per pupil in other countries.

Further and higher education

Despite rumours circulating in the media, the decision on the funding of higher education was kicked into the long grass yet again, with the words ‘higher education’ mentioned only three times in the Budget and Spending Review document, and more information promised “in the coming weeks”.

Meanwhile, the eye-catching nominal and real-terms increases announced for further education (FE) and skills look decidedly less generous once account is taken of the fact that we are about to experience a massive increase in the population of 16-19 year olds. The document itself acknowledges that while there will be a 28% real-terms increase in 16-19 funding in 2024-25 compared to 2019-20, this will only maintain – rather than increase – funding per student in real terms. Despite a much greater emphasis in policy discourse about the importance of further education and adult learning than we have seen in recent years, this settlement does not suggest a transformation of the fortunes of the FE sector, which caters to the majority of each academic cohort and in which young people from lower socio-economic backgrounds are over-represented.

Implications for inequalities

Perhaps contrary to expectations, yesterday’s spending review contained increases in spending for most government departments, paid for by the highest tax rises in nearly 30 years. But given the significant challenges posed by the pandemic for children and young people, the Department for Education’s budget will be only a little higher in 2024-25 than it was in 2009-10, while the Department of Health and Social Care budget will have increased by over 40%.

The thinking seems to be that children will catch-up over time anyway. But the evidence suggests that inequalities in educational attainment only increase as children get older: higher socio-economic status parents can provide more opportunities for learning – through better schools, tutoring or more academic and non-academic enrichment activities – than lower socio-economic status parents, and these investments cumulate over time, widening the gap between those from different backgrounds. The same will be true of parents’ ability to support their children to ‘catch-up’ on what they lost during the pandemic.

Without significant government investment to support children from more disadvantaged backgrounds, the wider inequalities that have opened up over the course of the pandemic are likely to foreshadow even greater inequalities in future. Yesterday’s spending review offered some support – but nowhere near enough.

A-levelling up: the thorny path back from teacher assessed grades

By Blog Editor, on 12 August 2021

By Jake Anders, Claire Crawford, and Gill Wyness
This piece first appeared on theGuardian.com.

This week’s GCSE and A level results confirmed the expectations of many who study education policy: the proportion of students achieving top grades in these qualifications has increased substantially compared to 2019, especially at A level. Students themselves should be extremely proud of their results, which were achieved under very difficult circumstances. Likewise, teachers have worked extremely hard to make the best assessment they can of their pupils’ performance. But there is no getting around the fact that these results are different – and not directly comparable with – pre-Covid results.

It is right to allow for the fact that students taking GCSEs and A levels this year and last are at a disadvantage compared to previous cohorts. In-person exams would have been next to impossible in 2020, and those assessed this year have missed significant amounts of schooling.

To deal with this, the government chose an entirely different means of measuring performance: teacher assessments. (We advocated a different approach, based on more flexible exams, in 2021.) This year’s approach has been rather more orderly than last year’s chaos, but the wide range of measures that teachers could consider – such as mock exams, in-class tests and coursework – inevitably led to variation in how schools assessed their pupils.

This year’s grades may also be capturing average or ‘best’ performance across a range of pieces of work, rather than a snapshot from one or two exams. This seems to have been particularly true at A level, where grades have immediate consequences for university entry decisions. In short, it is unsurprising that grades based on teacher assessment are higher than those based on exams alone: while some have called this grade inflation we think it’s more accurate to say that they are capturing different information.

A level grade distribution in 2019, 2020 and 2021

But given they have been presented on the same scale, the stark increase in grades compared to pre-Covid times present significant challenges for current and future cohorts.

Even making comparisons between pupils within the 2021 cohort may be challenging. Using teacher assessment is likely to have disadvantaged some students relative to others. Previous research has shown that Black Caribbean pupils are more likely than white pupils to receive a grade from their teacher below their score in an externally marked test taken at the same time. Similarly, girls have also been found to perform better at coursework, while boys do better at exams on average. Differences by gender have been particularly apparent this year, with girls seeing larger improvements in performance than boys compared to pre-pandemic.

This year’s record high scores raise challenging questions. The much larger proportion of pupils getting As and A*s at A level, for example, may lead to universities relying more heavily on alternative methods of distinguishing between applicants – such as personal statements – which have been shown to entrench (dis)advantage.

There is also the all-important question of what to do next year: are this year’s grade distributions the right starting point, or should we be looking to return to something closer to the 2019 distribution? Is it possible to go back? And would we want to?

Assuming in-person exams are feasible next year, one possibility would be to return to 2019’s system as if nothing had happened. This would probably see substantial reductions in the proportion of students getting top grades, especially at A level. One can only imagine the political challenge of trying to do this.

Even more important is that the next cohorts of GCSE and A level students (and indeed the ones that follows – we are tracking the experiences of those taking GCSEs this year as part of a new UKRI-funded cohort study, COSMO) have also been affected by the pandemic, arguably to a greater degree than this year’s. They are therefore likely to underperform their potential and get lower grades than cohorts who took their exams before the pandemic struck. That is clearly not desirable.

It is important to continue making allowances for the exceptional circumstances young people have faced during this crucial time in their education. During the period affected by pandemic learning loss, our suggestion would be to design exams with more flexibility, allowing candidates to choose which questions to answer based on their strengths, as is common in university exams. This would enable a return to the fairest way to assess students – exams – while still taking account of lost learning.

Either way, any return to exam-based grades is likely to result in an immediate pronounced drop in results compared to the last two years, especially at A level. Gavin Williamson has suggested that the government will aim instead for a “glide path back to a more normal state of affairs”. This would smooth out the unfairness of sharp discontinuities between cohorts. But it would mean moving away from grades being based on the same standard over time, instead setting quotas of students allowed to achieve each grade, gradually reducing the higher grades and increasing the lower ones. Even if that seems a good plan now, it would be very hard to stick to: the fall-out from the small reduction in pass rates seen in Scotland this week would be a taste of things to come for years.

A more radical possibility would be to reset the grading system entirely. This would get around the political issue of there being very large or deliberate small falls in grades for future cohorts, but one wonders whether this is the right time to undertake such a drastic overhaul. The pandemic will have repercussions on young people’s grades for years to come: is the best approach really a total reset right now?

The question of what to do next is one that policymakers will have to grapple with over the coming months and years. Of more fundamental importance and urgency, however, is that pupils have experienced widespread learning losses due to the pandemic – regardless of what their grades show – and are likely to be affected by these for years. Students require ongoing support throughout the rest of their educational careers, including catch up support throughout school, college and university.

We cannot simply award them GCSE and A level grades that try to look past the learning they have lost and move on – the learning loss remains and must be addressed.

Dr Gill Wyness & Dr Jake Anders are deputy directors of the UCL Centre for Education Policy & Equalising Opportunities (CEPEO). Dr Claire Crawford is an associate professor at CEPEO.

The ‘graduate parent’ advantage in teacher assessed grades

By IOE Editor, on 8 June 2021

By Jake Anders, Lindsey Macmillan, Patrick Sturgis, and Gill Wyness

Following a disastrous attempt to assign pupil grades using a controversial algorithm, last year’s GCSE and A level grades were eventually determined using Centre Assessed Grades (CAGs) following public outcry. Now, new evidence from a survey carried out by the UCL Centre for Education Policy and Equalising Opportunity (CEPEO) and the London School of Economics finds that some pupils appear to have benefited from an unfair advantage from this approach – particularly pupils with graduate parents. As teachers will again be deciding exam grades this year, this finding serves as an important warning of the challenges involved in ensuring that a system using teacher assessments is fair.

The decision to cancel formal exams in 2020 was taken at a late stage in the school year, meaning that there was little time for the government to develop a robust approach to assessment. After a short consultation, the Department for Education (DfE) decided that pupils’ exam grades would be determined by the teacher’s assessment of pupils’ grades, including their ranking. However, to prevent grade inflation due to teachers’ overpredicting their pupils, Ofqual then applied an algorithm to the rankings to calculate final grades, based on the historical results of the school.

A level pupils received their calculated grades on results days 2020, and although Ofqual reporting showed that the calculated grades were slightly higher than 2019 across the grade range, many pupils were devastated to find their teacher assessed grades had been lowered by the algorithm. More than a third of pupils received lower calculated grades than their original teacher assessed grades. Following widespread public outcry, the calculated grades were abandoned, and pupils were awarded the grades initially assessed by teachers. This inevitably led to significant grade inflation compared to previous cohorts.

This also created a unique situation where pupils received two sets of grades for their A levels – the calculated grades from the algorithm and the teacher allocated “centre assessed grades” or “CAGs”.

While it is now well established that CAGs were, on average, higher than the algorithm-calculated grades, less is known about the disparities between the two sets of grades for pupils from different backgrounds. Understanding these differences is important since it sheds light on whether some pupils received a larger boost from the move to teacher predicted CAGs, and hence to their future education and employment prospects. It is also, of course, relevant to this year’s grading process, as grades will again be allocated by teachers.

Administrative data on the differences between calculated grades and CAGs is not currently publicly available. However, findings from a new UKRI-funded survey of young people by the UCL Centre for Education Policy and Equalising Opportunity (CEPEO) and the London School of Economics (LSE) can help us to understand the issue. The survey provides representative data on over 4000 young people in England aged between 13 and 20, with interviews carried out online between November 2020 and January 2021.

Respondents affected by the A level exam cancellations (300 respondents) were asked whether their CAGs were higher or lower than their calculated grades. The resulting data reveal stark differences in the extent to which pupils were given a boost by the decision to revert to CAGs. As shown in Figure 1, pupils with graduate parents were 17 percentage points more likely to report that their CAGs were higher than their Ofqual calculated grades.  The survey data are linked to administrative data on prior attainment at Key Stages 2 and 4, as well as demographic and background characteristics such as, free school meals status, ethnicity, SEN and English as an additional language). Even after accounting for differences between pupils across these characteristics, those with graduate parents were still 15 percentage points more likely to report having higher CAGs than calculated grades.

Figure 1. The proportion of young people reporting their CAGs were better than their calculated grades by whether or not they report that one of their parents has a university degree (left panel: raw difference; right panel: adjusted for demographic characteristics and prior attainment)

 

There are a number of possible explanations for these differences. First, it could be that pupils with graduate parents are more likely to attend particular types of schools which have a greater tendency to ‘over-assess’ grades. While not directly relevant to this sample, an extreme version of this are the documented cases of independent schools deliberately over-assessing their pupils, but this could also happen in less dramatic and more unconscious ways. It could, for example, be more likely among schools that are used to predicting grades as part of the process for pupils applying to highly competitive university courses, where over-prediction may help more than it hurts.

A second possibility is that graduate parents are more likely to lobby their child’s school to ensure they receive favourable assessments. Such practices are reportedly becoming more common this year, with reports of “pointy elbowed” parents in affluent areas emailing teachers to attempt to influence their children’s GCSE and A level grades ahead of teacher assessed grades replacing exams this summer.

A third possibility is that the relatively high assessments enjoyed by those with graduate parents is a result of unconscious bias by teachers. A recent review by Ofqual found evidence of teacher biases in assessment, particularly against those from SEN and disadvantaged backgrounds, while a new study from Russia showed that teachers gave higher grades to pupils with more agreeable personalities. Interestingly, we found no differences between FSM and non-FSM pupils, perhaps suggesting teachers were careful not to treat FSM pupils differently. But they may nonetheless exhibit an unconscious positive bias towards pupils from backgrounds that tend to be associated with higher educational achievement.

Our results do not afford any leverage on which of these explanations, if any, is correct. Regardless of what is behind this systematic difference, our findings show that pupils with more educated parents received an unfair advantage in their A level results last year, with potential repercussions for equality and social mobility. They also highlight this is a substantial risk for this year’s process – perhaps even more so without the expectation of algorithmic moderation: grading pupils fairly in the absence of externally set and marked assessments is setting teachers an almost impossible task.

The working paper ‘Inequalities in young peoples’ education experiences and wellbeing during the Covid-19 pandemic’ is available here.

Learn more about our project on the impact of the pandemic on young people here.

Notes
The UKRI Covid-19 funded UCL CEPEO / LSE survey records information from a sample of 4,255 respondents, a subset of the 6,409 respondents who consented to recontact as part of the Wellcome Trust Science Education Tracker (SET) 2019 survey. The SET study was commissioned by Wellcome with additional funding from the Department for Education (DfE), UKRI, and the Royal Society. The original sample was a random sample of state school pupils in England, drawn from the National Pupil Database (NPD) and Individualised Learner Record (ILR). To correct for potentially systematic patterns of respondent attrition, non-response weights were calculated and applied to all analyses, aligning the sample profile with that of the original survey and the profile of young people in England.

This work is funded as part of the UKRI Covid-19 project ES/V013017/1 “Assessing the impact of Covid-19 on young peoples’ learning, motivation, wellbeing, and aspirations using a representative probability panel”.

This work was produced using statistical data hosted by ONS. The use of the ONS statistical data in this work does not imply the endorsement of the 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.

There can be no “levelling up” without education recovery

By IOE Editor, on 3 June 2021

This blog post first appeared on the University of Bristol Economics blog.

Simon Burgess, June 2021

Yesterday saw the resignation of Sir Kevan Collins, leading the Government’s Education Recovery Programme. The pandemic has hit young people very hard, causing significant learning losses and reduced mental health; the Recovery Programme is intended to rectify these harms and to repair the damage to pupils’ futures. His resignation letter labelled as inadequate the Government’s proposal: “I do not believe that it is credible that a successful recovery can be achieved with a programme of support of this size.”

The rejection of this programme, and the offer of a funding package barely a tenth of what is needed, is hard to understand. It is certainly not efficient: the cost of not rectifying the lost learning is vastly greater than the £15billion cost (discussed below). And it is manifestly unfair, for example when compared to the enormous expense incurred to look after older people like me. The vaccination programme is a colossal and brilliant public undertaking; we need something similar to protect the futures of young people. We have also seen educational inequality widen dramatically across social groups: children from poorer families have fallen yet further behind. If we do not have a properly funded educational recovery programme, any talk of “levelling up” is just noise.

Context – Education recovery after learning loss

An education recovery plan is urgently needed because of all the learning lost during school closures. For the first few months of the pandemic and the first round of school closures, we were restricted to just estimating the learning loss. Once pupils started back at school in September, data began to be collected from online assessment providers to actually measure the learning loss. The Education Endowment Foundation is very usefully collating these findings as they come in. The consensus is that the average loss of learning is around 2-3 months, with the most recent results the most worrying.  Within that average, the loss is much greater for students from disadvantaged backgrounds, and the loss is greater for younger pupils. To give only the most recent example, the latest data shows that schools with high fractions of disadvantaged kids saw falls in test scores twice as severe as those in low-poverty schools, and that Year 1 and Year 2 pupils experienced much larger falls in attainment. Government proposals for “Recovery” spending for precisely these pupils would be next to nothing, as Sir Kevan Collins notes in his Times article today: “The average primary school will directly receive just £6,000 per year, equivalent to £22 per child”.

The Government’s proposals amount to roughly £1 billion for more small-group tutoring and around £500m for teacher development and training. I am strongly in favour of small-group tutoring, but the issue is the scale: this is nowhere near enough. It is widely reported that Sir Kevan Collins’ estimate of what was required was £15 billion, based on a full analysis of the lost learning and the mental health and wellbeing deficits that both need urgent attention. For comparison, EPI helpfully provide these numbers on education recovery spending: the figure for England is equivalent to around £310 per pupil over three years, compared to £1,600 per pupil in the US, and £2,500 per pupil in the Netherlands.

Why might the programme have been rejected? Here are some arguments:

“It’s a lot of money”

It really isn’t. An investment of £15bn is dwarfed by the cost of not investing. Time in school increases a child’s cognitive ability, and prolonged periods of missed school have consequences for skill growth. We now know that a country’s level of skills has a strong (causal) effect on its economic growth rate. This is a very, very large scale problem: all of the 13 cohorts of pupils in school have lost skills because of school closures. So from the mid-2030s, all workers in their 20s will have significantly lower skills than they would otherwise have. And for the 40 years following that, between a third and a quarter of the entire workforce will have lower skills. Lost learning, lower skills, lower economic growth, lower tax revenues. Hanushek and Woessman, two highly distinguished economists, compute this value for a range of OECD countries. For the UK, assuming that the average amount of lost learning is about half a year, their results project the present discounted value of all the lost economic growth at roughly £2,150 billion (£2.15 trillion). Almost any policy will be worthwhile to mitigate such a loss.

“Kids are resilient and the lost learning will sort itself out”

This is simply wishful thinking. We should not be betting the futures of 7 million children on this basis. Economists estimate the way that skills are formed and one key attribute of this process can be summarised as “skills beget skills”. One of the first statements of this was Heckman and co-authors, and more recent researchers have confirmed this, and also using genetic data. This implies that if the level of skills has fallen to a lower level, then the future growth rate of skills will also be lower, assuming nothing else is done. It is also widely shown that early investments are particularly productive. Given these, we would expect pupils suffering significant learning losses to actually fall further behind rather than catch up. Sir Kevan Collins makes exactly this point in his resignation letter: “learning losses that are not addressed quickly are likely to compound”.

Perhaps catch-up can be achieved by pupils and parents working a bit harder at home? There is now abundant evidence from many countries including the UK that learning at home is only effective for some, typically more advantaged, families. For other families, it is not for want of trying or caring, but their lack of time, resources, skills and space makes it very difficult. The time for home learning to make up the lost learning was March 2020 through March 2021; if it was only patchily effective then, it will be less effective from now on.

“There’s no evidence to support these interventions”

This is simply not true, as I set out when recommending small-group tutoring last summer. There is abundant evidence that small-group tutoring is very effective in raising attainment. There is also strong evidence that lengthening the school day is also effective.

Conclusion

This blog is less scientifically cold and aloof than most that I write. I struggle to make sense of the government’s proposals to provide such a half-hearted, watered-down recovery programme, to value so lightly the permanent scar on pupil’s futures. The skills and learning of young people will not magically recover by itself; the multiple blows to mental health and wellbeing will not heal if ignored. The Government’s proposal appears to have largely abandoned them. To leave the final words to Sir Kevan Collins: I am concerned that the package announced today betrays an undervaluation of the importance of education, for individuals and as a driver of a more prosperous and healthy society.