X Close

Centre for Education Policy and Equalising Opportunities (CEPEO)

Home

We create research to improve the education system and equalise opportunities for all.

Menu

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.

Retain external examination as the primary means of assessment

By Blog editor, on 22 June 2023

By Dr Dominic P. Kelly

Earlier this year, CEPEO launched ‘New Opportunities’, a list of practical priorities for future governments based on the best existing evidence across the social sciences. One of our recommendations regarded calls to abolish high stakes educational assessment by traditional means (i.e., ‘high stakes’ external examinations). Although these calls are not novel, in the wake of disruption to traditional GCSE and A-Level examinations in the past few years, those calls have certainly grown recently. Critics of external examinations argue that they are merely a test of rote memory of impractical knowledge and neither measure the underlying skill they claim to nor improve a child’s educational experiences or later outcomes. There is additional suggestion that these exams lack predictive value for future educational achievement, particularly in higher education, and provide additional stress for students. Based on the existing empirical evidence, we disagree with these assertions. On this basis, our recommendation is to retain external examination as the primary means of assessment and contend that not doing so would harm equity between students in a way that outweighs other concerns around external assessment. Yet, we also advocate for evidence-based improvements to assessments to be made with the intention of holistically improving both the examination system and national curricula and we detail some potential changes below.

 

External examinations are more resilient to examiners’ bias

One primary concern about external examinations is that they are disadvantageous for students from minority groups compared to coursework or continuous assessment. Although continued effort is needed to modernise the curriculum and provide content and skills that are relevant to diverse backgrounds, the evidence that alternatives reduce disadvantage for minority groups is lacking. It is often suggested that internal assessments by teachers would be an optimal alternative. But evidence suggests that teachers are prone to either showing bias or being inaccurate in their assessments of students from minority groups. Research has shown that some teachers demonstrably show ethnic bias in their assessments such that nearly three times as many Black Caribbean pupils received predicted scores below their actual scores than White students. Additional research also suggests that students from higher socioeconomic status (SES) are more likely to have more favourable internal assessments by teachers than those students from lower SES backgrounds. Although it is sometimes thought that students from low SES backgrounds do comparatively better in coursework than examinations, evidence from the UK suggests that this is not the case. In addition, concerns about examinations causing increasing in student anxiety are contested: although test anxiety is a notable phenomenon among students, it has been suggested that there is minimal effects of test anxiety on performance in GCSE examinations and that children’s wellbeing or happiness was not related to their participation in Key Stage 2 external examinations. Therefore, systems without anonymous external assessments are thought to have substantial biases and this would have deleterious effects for reducing inequalities in the UK education system.

 

External examinations can be complemented by improvements made elsewhere

Despite our recommendation that external assessments remain the primary means of assessment, that is not to say that these assessments could not be complemented by evidence-based approaches to reform to the current curricula and assessment. First, concerns over the practice of ‘teaching to the test’ could be addressed by changing the content of the external examinations to reward a richer approach to teaching, which would likely benefit students. For example, providing examples with “higher level” items in classroom assessments (which encourage deeper processing of information than items that only require rote learning) may yield comparatively stronger performance on both low- and high-level items in external examinations. Incidentally, reducing the amount of time teachers spend on providing their own assessments of students could potentially provide more time for other activities in the classroom. Second, portfolios and other types of summative assessments can have utility as a complement to traditional exams but they should be marked externally by someone unfamiliar with the student to avoid biases. Third, and most of all, the administration of thoughtful formative assessment has the potential to prepare students for external examinations and potentially providing a greater context for external examinations to be interpreted within. Formative assessment has been shown to have notable positive effects on pupil attainment and can be structured in a way devoid of teacher bias. Given the evidence that single assessments of cognition can be affected by stress, sleep and other extraneous factors, there are benefits to repeatedly assessing smaller and more specific elements of knowledge or cognition in a way that complement single external assessments and benefit learning environments – as long as it can be done objectively and with minimal bias from educators.

 

Summary

We advocate for external assessments to continue to be the primary means of educational assessment in the UK. Switching to internal teacher-based assessment would set back attempts to reduce inequalities in the UK education system. Furthermore, we would argue that concerns about stress are surpassed by evidence of teacher bias and inaccuracies in internal assessments. There are additional benefits to students and teachers of summative or continuous formative assessment, but these are complements rather than substitutes for external examination. The content and format of external assessments, whether high-stakes or continuous, should continue to be re-evaluated in line with well-founded and methodologically rigorous research.

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.

Conclusions

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)

Conclusions

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.

The path to a more socially diverse and inclusive workforce

By Blog editor, on 15 June 2023

By Dr Claire Tyler

CEPEO recently launched New Opportunities: our evidence-based policy priorities for equalising opportunities. In this weekly blog, we are highlighting one of our priorities and the reasoning and evidence behind them. This week, we are focusing on socio-economic inequalities in the workplace and how employers can use data to create more socially diverse and inclusive organisations.

Evidence consistently shows that an individual’s social background predicts their chances of accessing a ‘top job’ such as a professional or managerial career – for example, 74% of medical professionals, 64% of journalists and lawyers and 89% of senior financial services professionals originate from professional or managerial backgrounds compared to 33% of the population. Two-fifths of Britain’s ‘leading people’ attended independent schools compared to 7% of the population. Even comparing graduates with similar academic backgrounds, privately educated graduates are still a third more likely to enter top jobs than comparable peers from state school.

But this isn’t just an issue of access: large socioeconomic pay and progression gaps also exist within many occupations. Individuals from working-class backgrounds earn 16% less in top jobs compared to colleagues from more privileged backgrounds. And These issues of access, pay and progression gaps by social background mirror those faced by women and ethnic minorities in the workforce. These gaps could therefore be targeted by a similar data-led policy approach – mandatory gender pay gap reporting was introduced in 2017 in the UK and mandatory ethnicity pay gap reporting is on the horizon after the government released guidance for voluntary reporting last month.

So what do we propose? We suggest the introduction of both entry and pay gap audits by socio-economic background. Employers would report: 1) the proportion of individuals from different socio-economic backgrounds entering occupations (which are easily compared to national benchmarks), and 2) pay inequalities by socio-economic background in a similar way to current gender pay-gap reporting. This policy would shine a light on current disparities in both access and progression of individuals from lower-socioeconomic backgrounds and reveal if career opportunities are being equalised over time.

Why is this a policy priority? Creating a level-playing field in the workplace is not only the ‘right thing to do’; it is also economically advantageous – a win-win strategy. Recent work shows that reduced workplace discrimination improves the allocation of talent in the labour market and drives economic growth. The growing ‘business case’ for diversity argues that more inclusive workforces drive profitability, innovation and better decision making.

It is also the right time for such a policy – the growth of EDI (equality, diversity and inclusion) agendas alongside more responsible and sustainable business practices (such as ESG reporting) has raised the profile of socio-economic diversity in recruitment, promotion and retention. Young people increasingly aspire to work for companies with a strong commitment to diversity – 72% of workers aged 18- 34 recently said they would consider turning down a job offer or leaving a company if they did not think that their manager (or potential manager) supported EDI initiatives. The policy would also crucially provide employers with a baseline for monitoring the impact of their own diversity initiatives and identify ‘what works’ for creating more diverse organisations –particularly vital insight at time when early talent teams are dropping academic credentials, navigating hybrid working for new recruits and designing alternative pathways into careers to widen and diversify their talent pools.

The policy is also likely to have a substantial impact – recent evidence on the effectiveness of UK gender pay gap legislation shows that pay transparency increases the probability of women working in above-median-wage occupations by 5% and closes the gender pay gap by 18%. Evidence on social background shows that firms returning year-on-year to the Social Mobility Employer Index are more likely to demonstrate progress on social mobility – they are four times more likely to be collecting at least three socioeconomic background data points than new entrants to the index, suggesting that transparency and focus can facilitate change.

While most policy levers available to government to equalise opportunities occur before labour market entry, this policy priority highlights one way in which government can hold employers to account for their role in equalising opportunities. If the government is committed to collecting and using data differently to improve social mobility (as stated here), introducing entry and pay gap audits by social background is a cost-effective place to start with benefits for employees, firms and society.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Social mobility scorecards for universities

By Blog Editor, on 6 June 2023

Oliver Cassagneau-Francis

CEPEO recently launched New Opportunities, our evidence-based manifesto for equalising opportunities. In this blog series, we are highlighting one of our policy priorities each week. This post makes the case for why we should introduce an official “Social Mobility Scorecard” for universities. This would both act as an incentive to those universities who are failing to help young people from disadvantaged backgrounds, and to recognise others who are a positive force for social mobility.

Graduates earn more money and enjoy better employment prospects than non-graduates, among other benefits. Governments know this, and so a key policy focus has been to encourage more young people, particularly those from less-advantaged backgrounds, to attend university. This is seen as a way to improve social mobility: put disadvantaged young people through a process that the evidence suggests can elevate people to be among the advantaged in society. And it works for some. However, “university” encompasses a wide range of institutions with wildly varying returns. Recent research in the UK has shown that returns can be as high as 35% for the universities with the highest financial rewards, falling to -5% for those with the lowest returns. So, securing high returns is not just about graduating – from where you graduate matters a lot too.

This issue is particularly relevant for the impact of pro-social mobility policies aimed at higher education. Are disadvantaged students attending the universities whose students get the best returns? Recent evidence suggests they’re not – the “best” universities and subjects are doing pretty badly at admitting less-advantaged young people. Students from the most disadvantaged groups were 100 times less likely to attend Oxford or Cambridge (two of the best-performing universities in terms of returns) than students from private schools.

This is where social mobility scorecards could make a difference. To ensure the “best” universities are not cherry-picking advantaged students (who would likely go on to do well anyway), and to reward those universities helping the most disadvantaged students, we need a public record of how universities are doing with regard to social mobility.

These scorecards are inspired by the Social Mobility Foundation’s “Social Mobility Employer Index” which appears to improve both practice and reporting around social mobility of the employers involved. Going a step further and making university scorecards official government releases will increase their traction among policymakers and other stakeholders, and ensure all universities take them seriously. There is evidence that publishing key information does hold educational institutions to account – for example, abolishing school league tables in Wales led to a 3.3 percentage point fall in the percentage of students achieving at least five GCSEs at A*-C (the key published measure) relative to schools in England (where league tables were not abolished).

Following the lead of researchers in the US, researchers at the IFS have already produced a one-off version of these scorecards – showing that the data required is readily available. They calculate a “mobility rate” for each university, which is the share of students from low-SES backgrounds (“access rate”) multiplied by the share of low-SES graduates who are in the top 20% of earners at age 30 (“success rate”). These calculations led to the damning results for Oxbridge reported earlier. However, there are also some positive findings. London-based universities do particularly well on this metric, mainly driven by their high access rates, with Queen Mary, University of London topping the overall ranking of mobility rates at 6.8%. There is no correlation between the average labour market returns at a university (i.e., wages) and mobility rates, highlighting the need for these scorecards in addition to already available metrics.

Officially publishing these mobility rates regularly (alongside other related statistics) would not only hold the most-selective universities to account regarding their poor performance on this metric, but would also highlight the important contribution of many less prestigious universities to society through their role in improving social mobility. This would be an important step towards ensuring that higher education is a positive force for social mobility, and why we’ve chosen to make it one of CEPEO’s policy priorities.

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).

Making Maths Count in Early Childhood

By Blog editor, on 25 May 2023

By Dr Laura Outhwaite

CEPEO recently launched New Opportunities, our evidence-based manifesto for equalising opportunities. In this blog series, we are highlighting one of our policy proposals each week. This post makes the case for why we need to raise standards in maths attainment from early childhood, and how this can be achieved through a new campaign to support parents’ engagement with children’s early maths skills.

Why maths?

Children’s maths attainment has been significantly impacted by the disruptions caused by Covid-19. Only 71% of 11-year-olds met expected standards in mathematics in their end of primary school SATs in 2022, compared to 79% in 2019. This decline in maths attainment was not observed for reading, which showed a small increase from 73% of 11-year-olds reaching expected standards to 74%, over the same period. This also reflects trends seen in longitudinal cohort data prior to the pandemic, where a maths-reading attainment gap emerges in the first years of school, with reading skills significantly exceeding those of maths.

These figures are a great distance from the Levelling Up Mission of 90% of 11-year-olds meeting expected standards in maths, reading, and writing by 2030. It also poses challenges to the Prime Minister’s vision for every young person to study some form of maths up to the age of 18. While there are several shorter-term solutions to these goals, such as the recruitment and retention of specialist maths teachers, we also need to address the bigger picture on factors that impact maths attainment, including the need to emphasise the importance and impact of maths development in early childhood.

Early maths matters

A meta-analysis of six longitudinal datasets shows that early maths skills at the start of primary school are the strongest predictors of later general attainment at ages 10-11, compared to other skills, including reading. How well children do in basic maths skills at ages 4-5 also significantly predicts enrolment in advanced mathematical courses between ages 15-18. This relationship remained significant after socio-economic status was accounted for. Furthermore, children who do well in maths throughout their educational careers are also more likely to have better labour market outcomes, including employment opportunities and earnings in adulthood.

Overall, this is not to say that a focus on maths should replace a focus on reading.  Rather, opportunities for maths need to have an increased presence in children’s early learning environments, including at home.

Maths in the home learning environment

Parents and caregivers typically read with their young children every day, compared to engaging in maths related activities once a week. These engagements in children’s learning at home are shown to be related to their attainment outcomes, including after controlling for socio-economic background. Likewise, parents who report feeling more confident in early maths spend more time engaging with maths activities, which in turn supports their child’s outcomes. Whereas feelings of anxiety about maths from parents can have a negative impact on child’s attainment, as well as their own anxieties about maths.

There are also inequalities in opportunities for active parental engagement with children’s maths development. For example, higher levels of maternal education support higher family incomes, which in turn supports increased parental investments in educational resources at home, and consequently increased maths skills for primary-school aged children. This highlights the need for low-cost solutions and resources that can boost parents’ confidence and engagement in early maths at home.

However, to date, initiatives aimed at encouraging and supporting parents to engage in early learning at home with their children have primarily focused on literacy and language skills. Review evidence suggests these kinds of programmes are beneficial for boosting engagement in the home learning environment. Feedback from the focus groups conducted by Public First about the CEPEO policy priorities also showed this proposal was well received as a way of solving the learning gap, particularly if the resources were online or on-demand. Therefore, we recommend a similar national campaign that targets children’s early maths skills.

Launch a new campaign to support children’s early maths skills

Research shows when involving parents in home learning, simply communicating the need to ‘do more maths’ is not enough. Instead, active parental engagement also needs to be encouraged. This can be achieved in several ways. For example, studies show parent-based educational apps that provide parents and caregivers with resources and ideas for how to engage with their child’s maths development have shown positive and sustained benefits on child outcomes and parent confidence. Mathematical story books and applying maths concepts into everyday life situations, conversations and play have also shown positive benefits.

Encouraging parents to engage with these resources, alongside support from early childhood education and care providers, can be a valuable way forward. Evidence from the Education Endowment Foundation describes the parental engagement on child outcomes as “high impact for low cost based on extensive evidence”. The Centre for Social Justice also calls for an integrated approach for supporting parental participation in children’s education as a way to contribute to reducing the attainment gap.

Overall, in creating this national campaign, it is vital to signpost and promote high-quality, evidence-based resources. This should be combined with working with parents and practitioners to maximise their reach and impact, particularly for those from disadvantaged backgrounds. In doing so, the summarised evidence suggests that this policy priority will make important contributions to raising maths attainment in early childhood with long-term benefits.

 

Attendance Matters: Evidence-Based Solutions to the Post-Covid Absenteeism Crisis

By Blog editor, on 18 May 2023

By Dr Asma Benhenda

CEPEO recently launched New Opportunities, our evidence-based manifesto for equalising opportunities. In this blog series, we are highlighting one of our policy proposals each week. This post presents evidence-based solutions to address the post-Covid persistent absenteeism, which include effectively engaging parents through automated text messages and addressing underlying factors such as the cost-of-living crisis, increasing mental health problems among young people, and a lack of support for special educational needs.

Schooling can only equalise opportunities if children are present in the classroom. Preliminary empirical analysis from FFT Education Datalab suggests that absence rates remain significantly higher than before the pandemic, especially in secondary school. Non-Covid-related persistent absence rates were 12 % in primary schools and 21 % in secondary schools during the autumn 2021.The latest data from Department for Education shows that persistent absence rates were equal to 20 % and 28 % in secondary school during the autumn 2022.  By comparison, persistent absence rates were equal to 11 % in primary school and 16 % in secondary school during the autumn 2019. Free school meals pupils are twice as likely to be persistently absent than other pupils.

This issue is not unique to the UK context.  A McKinsey study conducted in December 2021 shows that, in the United States, absenteeism has risen, with 2.7 times as many students on a path to be chronically absent from school in 2021 compared with before the pandemic. While absenteeism rates for high-income students are levelling off, rates for low-income students have continued to worsen since the spring 2021, despite the return to in-person school.

More recent evidence from California further supports this concerning trend. Between 2018-19 and 2021-22, there were substantial spikes in chronic absenteeism for students from ethnic minorities and disadvantaged socio-economic background. Absenteeism rates for Black students rising from 23% to 43%, and rates for students from socioeconomically disadvantaged backgrounds increasing from 15% to 37%

There is evidence from before the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic on the determinants of persistent absences. Evidence from the US (EPI, 2018) shows that poor health, parents’ nonstandard work schedules, low socioeconomic status, changes in adult household composition (e.g., adults moving into or out of the household), residential mobility, and extensive family responsibilities (e.g., children looking after siblings) – along with inadequate supports for student within the educational system (e.g., lack of adequate transportation, unsafe conditions, lack of medical services, harsh disciplinary measures, etc.) are all associated with a greater likelihood of being chronically absent. Evidence from Scotland using the 2007 and 2008 waves of the Scottish Longitudinal Study shows that that parental education, parental class, housing tenure, free school meal registration, and neighbourhood deprivation all increased the risk of being absent from school. Neglecting some of these dimensions would underestimate the full extent of socioeconomic inequalities in school attendance (Klein and Sosu, 2021), especially in the context of the cost of living crisis.

 

Post-pandemic evidence on the determinants of persistent absences is still very scarce. A multiple stakeholder qualitative study with parents and professionals conducted in the Spring and Summer 2021 suggests that compounding factors for persistent absences included COVID-related anxiety, difficulties adapting to new school routines, poor home-school communication and collaboration, and concerns about academic catch-up (McDonald et al., 2022).

 

An ongoing research project conducted by Asma Benhenda at CEPEO examines the impact of the pandemic on Special Educational Needs and Disabilities (SEND) pupils’ absences. Preliminary evidence reveals that during the pandemic, the absence rate for SEND pupils remained consistently 4 percentage points higher than the average pupil. While absence rates increased for all groups at the end of the pandemic, with an overall absence rate of 5.80%, pupils with SEND still faced a higher risk of absence at a rate of 10%. However, the pandemic did not widen the gap in absence rates between SEND pupils and the average pupil. Disparities in the SEND-all pupils absence rate gap were observed across different regions, with London having the smallest gap of around 2 percentage points, while the Southwest and the East Midlands had the highest gap of around 4 percentage points. Secondary schools exhibited a larger gap of approximately 8 percentage points compared to primary schools, which had a gap of around 3 percentage points. Additionally, a positive and statistically significant correlation was found between the gap in absence risk between SEND pupils and all pupils and local COVID-19 rates, indicating that SEND pupils were more affected by local surges in COVID-19 cases than the average pupil.

While the existing research provides valuable insights, further investigation is needed to fully understand the underlying factors contributing to persistent absence among pupils and inform the development of comprehensive solutions. Work by CEPEO colleagues using the COVID Social Mobility & Opportunities study (COSMO), tracking a cohort of students currently in Year 13, is exploring the links between persistent absences and financial instability, mental health challenges, and students’ SEND status. Factors such as food poverty, reliance on food banks, elevated risk of psychological distress, and SEND status are recognised in anecdotal evidence as significant contributors to persistent absence, and analysis of large-scale representative data will shine a light on the importance and implications of these potential contributors to this issue.

Pre-pandemic evidence from the US shows that leveraging low-cost technology to improve communication with parents can significantly reduce absence rates. In the US, a large-scale one-year experiment that pushed high-frequency information to parents about their child’s absences via automated text messages increased class attendance by 12%. The effect of this intervention is the largest for low achieving students, and the total cost was very low: just $63 in intervention costs for the whole study. A 2022 Evidence review by the Education Endowment Foundation also highlights that sending parents of pupils who are persistently absent personalised letters or texts can help improve attendance.

Despite the detrimental impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on persistent absenteeism, there exist practical and effective solutions to address this challenge. Evidence suggests that leveraging low-cost technology, such as personalised letters or automated text messages, to communicate with parents can significantly reduce absence rates. Addressing persistent absenteeism will require a multi-dimensional approach, considering various determinants such as the current cost of living crisis, increasing rates of mental health problems among young people, and issues of SEND provision in schools. As the education system recovers from the pandemic, addressing persistent absenteeism must be a priority to ensure that schooling can equalise opportunities.