X Close

Centre for Education Policy and Equalising Opportunities (CEPEO)


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


Has a GCSE grade C/4 lost its value?

By IOE Editor, on 16 March 2021

By John Jerrim

With exams being cancelled again in 2021, concerns have resurfaced over there being rampant “grade inflation”. This was thought by many to be a perennial problem throughout the nineties and noughties as GCSE and A-Level pass-marks raised year-upon-year. Yet, when the Conservatives came to power in 2010, this was something that they vowed to end.

Indeed, some argued it was this obsession over avoiding grade inflation and maintaining standards that ended up leading to the disaster we saw with the awarding of examination grades last summer.

But how have GCSE standards really changed over time? This blog takes a look.

How can we do this?

To examine grade inflation over time I look at average PISA mathematics scores by GCSE mathematics grades, covering examinations taken between 2007 and 2019. PISA is taken just six months before GCSEs, and provides an independent benchmark that is meant to be comparable over time (and hence not affected by problems of grade inflation). (Though readers should keep in mind some of the caveats I have written about PISA previously.

This takes us through to 2019. But we know a lot of grade inflation also occurred last year due to the disaster that came with cancelling examinations. I have produced a rough estimate of the impact that this has had in terms of PISA scores and so also include this in the results (gory details of how I came up with this estimate can be found at the end of the blog).

Together, this allows us to look at changes since 2007 in the “value” (in terms of PISA points) of England’s GCSE “standard pass” (grade C in old money, grade 4 in new money).

A sustained fall in value

Figure 1 provides the headline results, comparing average PISA mathematics scores for those who achieve England’s 4/C grade standard pass in mathematics (green line) to the average for England as a whole (pink line) and across all OECD countries (blue line).

 Figure 1. The decline in PISA scores associated with achieving grade C/ 4 in GCSE mathematics in England since 2007


Notes: Grade C figures in 2012 based upon state school pupils only (illustrated by dashed line). Data for 2020 estimated from change in the grade distribution between 2019 and 2020. Year running along horizontal axis refers to the year GCSEs were taken by the PISA cohort.

There has been a clear and sustained fall in the value of England’s GCSE standard pass (grade C/4) over time. Back in 2007, hitting the floor target (grade C) was equal to the OECD average (495 points). Yet this value has got gradually eroded away, down to around 470 after Michael Gove’s time in charge and down to around 455 points for a grade 4 in 2020.

To put this into context, the OCED would equate this 40-point fall in the value of England’s floor target between 2007 and 2020 to a drop of more than one whole year of schooling.

Table 1 below provides further contextualisation of these results. This takes the PISA 2018 mathematics rankings and inserts the value of England’s floor target since 2007 (for each year with data or an estimate available). I have also thrown in the “value” of grade 5 in 2019 and 2020 (estimated) for good measure.

Table 1. The position of England’s C/4 and 5 grade within the PISA 2018 mathematics rankings
Country PISA score Country PISA score
B-S-J-Z (China) 591 Iceland 495
Singapore 569 New Zealand 494
Macao (China) 558 Portugal 492
Hong Kong (China) 551 Australia 491
Chinese Taipei 531 OECD average 489
Japan 527 Russia 488
Korea 526 Italy 487
Estonia 523 Slovak Republic 486
Netherlands 519 GCSE C (2010) 484
Poland 516 Luxembourg 483
Switzerland 515 Spain 481
Canada 512 Lithuania 481
Denmark 509 Hungary 481
Slovenia 509 United States 478
Belgium 508 GCSE C (2016) 473
Finland 507 Belarus 472
Grade 5 (2019) 506 Malta 472
England average 504 GCSE grade 4 (2019) 467
Sweden 502 Croatia 464
United Kingdom 502 GCSE C -state pupils (2013) 463
Norway 501 Israel 463
Germany 500 GCSE grade 4 (estimated) 2020 456
Ireland 500 Turkey 454
Czech Republic 499 Ukraine 453
Austria 499 Greece 451
Latvia 496 Cyprus 451
France 495 .+ 33 further countries….
Grade 5 (estimated) 2020 495
GCSE C (2007) 495


Children who got a grade 4 in mathematics in 2020 had roughly the same skills as the average young person in countries like Turkey and Ukraine. This is around 16 places lower in the PISA rankings than a child who got a C grade back in 2007 (roughly equivalent to countries like Australia, New Zealand and France).

Table 1 also illustrates how a grade 5 in 2020 now has almost exactly the same value as a C grade did back in 2007. Post-pandemic, this might justify the 5 grade becoming the new floor target young people are expected to achieve.

A tale of two policy mistakes

The devaluation of England’s floor target has really stemmed from two key mistakes.

The first was the miscommunication of what the floor target and expected standard was when the new 9 to 1 grading system was introduced – and whether grade 4 or 5 should be considered the “pass” mark.

The second was in the response to the cancellation last summer, which led to the eventual reliance upon (inflated) centre-assessed grades.

Now, only time will tell whether we will see yet more grade inflation this summer, as some suggest. But, if we do, then a conversation may be needed as to whether existing floor targets continue to hold sufficient value.

Gory details  

Table 2 below provides three pieces of information:

  • Column (i) = Average PISA scores by GCSE grades in 2019.
  • Column (ii) = GCSE mathematics grade distribution in 2019
  • Column (iii) = GCSE mathematics grade distribution in 2020.

To estimate grade inflation in terms of PISA scores, I first multiply average PISA scores at each grade by the percent of pupils who achieve each grade. This is done for both 2019 (second column from the right) and 2020 (the righthand-most column). The values in these columns are then summed together, giving a kind of “weighted average” for 2019 (486.5) and 2020 (497.6). The difference between these two values – 11 points – is my estimate of the impact of the 2020 grade inflation. Note that I treat this as a single value that causes a monotonic shift in the distribution, affecting all parts of it equally (i.e. I do not allow for any potential differential inflation at different grades).

Table 2. Estimating the value of grade inflation between 2019 and 2020 in terms of PISA points (mathematics)
  (i) Average PISA score (ii) GCSEs 2019 (iii) GCSEs 2020 column (i)* column (ii) column (i)* column (iii)
Grade 9 620 3.7% 5.4% 23 33
Grade 8 585 7.2% 7.9% 42 46
Grade 7 561 9.5% 11.0% 53 62
Grade 6 532 11.5% 13.0% 61 69
Grade 5 506 18.2% 20.1% 92 102
Grade 4 467 21.4% 19.7% 100 92
Grade 3 434 12.7% 11.1% 55 48
Grade 2 396 8.6% 7.3% 34 29
Grade 1 364 5.4% 3.9% 20 14
Grade U 337 1.8% 0.6% 6 2
Weighted avg 486.5 497.6
Difference 11.1  


How big is the challenge due to Covid-19 education disruption, and what can be done about it

By IOE Editor, on 23 February 2021

By Lindsey Macmillan, Jake Anders, Gill Wyness

 8th March 2021 will be the date that all children return to in-person schooling after another 8 weeks of absence for the majority. This is just short of a full year since schools first had to close their doors back on 20th March 2020. Of course, schools have been open throughout to critical workers’ and vulnerable children but, for most, there has been a return to home learning, and all of the difficulties that come with it. In this post, we consider the scale of the challenge that we are likely to face given the disruption to education that has been experienced over the past year, and what policymakers might do to mitigate these effects.

There can be little overstating of the sheer magnitude of the challenge that we face in recovering the huge amount of learning loss. There are three main points to make here from the evidence:

First, the emerging evidence from lockdown one is showing large learnings losses and big impacts on socio-emotional development. A recent study from EEF and NfER found that on average Year 2 children were two months behind in Autumn 2020 compared to previous cohorts. Another study by Juniper Education found that the number of children achieving at expected levels in primary school had fallen by one fifth in 2020 compared to 2019. Recent evidence from ImpactEd showed that the pandemic has also had a negative impact on children’s socio-emotional outcomes. And the modelling of the impact of this for the future economy is bleak. There are a range of estimates here, but they start in tens of billions and go into the trillions of pounds in lost earnings and growth due to lost learning.

Second, these average effects are masking big differences across groups. We know that younger and disadvantaged children have seen the biggest impacts. Disadvantaged children are 7 months behind where previous cohorts were at the same stage, compared to the average of 2 months. They also made the slowest progress in the autumn term, suggesting catch up efforts are not doing enough to tackle these differential effects. These greater educational losses also suggests future earnings losses will be particularly pronounced for this group, exacerbating inequality for a generation to come. As well as losses affecting certain types of pupils differentially, we are also seeing differences by skill type: while we see losses in learning across the range of key skills, they are more evident in maths in primary school.

Third, and crucially, these findings are all based on evidence from before this most recent lockdown. There is good reason to expect that differential learning losses will have worsened during the current lockdown – inequalities will have widened further. Why is that? Well while most pupils had relatively limited access to online learning in lockdown 1, this time around the picture is quite different. Online provision has improved, but not all will have been able to take full advantage of this. There are multiple barriers to home learning for disadvantaged pupils. While some of the more obvious barriers have been ameliorated by policy – laptops have been sent out, internet resources have been provided – there are many barriers that schools and DfE cannot mitigate. These include a lack of physical space to sit and work, different levels of parental confidence, different parental abilities to engage with the material to help children, and different skills to access the multiple online platforms required. Taken together this implies that, unfortunately, we are likely to see even larger inequalities in learning losses when children return to their classrooms.

What policy responses are required to mitigate these impacts?

Given the likely scale and nature of the task, this isn’t going to be easy. A key question for policymakers here is ‘What are we trying to do?’ Are we aiming to work our way back to pre-pandemic levels of skills and achievement, taking those stubborn inequalities in skills that we saw prior to all of this as given? Are we merely trying to reduce new levels of inequalities? Or are we thinking about reframing what our education system should be doing? The policy responses are very much dependent on the answer to those questions.

There is some very good evidence that small group and one-to-one tuition is an effective intervention for aiding pupil progress. As such it’s heartening that money has been invested accordingly subsidising a range of offerings in this space – this is a great example of evidence-led policy-making. But challenges remain. As the pandemic goes on – and given the likely further impact of the most recent closures – we need to ensure this resource is both adequately funded and targeted.

But given what we know about skill development, and rates of progress made in the autumn term, is this going to be enough? There are understandable concerns about wellbeing and play-based approaches should be prioritised for younger children. Unfortunately, this is unlikely to be something that will be a quick fix – we need to track data on progress and the impact of interventions, and keep coming back to this issue in the medium to long-term to adjust the policy design in response to what the evidence tells us here.

Finally, the wider evidence supports the need for high-quality inputs: investing in teachers and teaching assistants, ensuring that financial incentives are targeted in the places and subject areas where we need them, and bringing senior leaders and the teacher workforce along in this process is going to be vital for recovery. Therefore, serious caution is needed here when discussing ideas such as extending school days or cutting holidays.

In the long run, we need to ensure that schools have the resources required to tackle the challenges they face. At times of great crisis comes great opportunity – the end of the Second World War saw the introduction of Free School Meals – and this might be the time to re-think fundamentally how we cater for those most at need across the education system, rebalancing funding and high-quality inputs accordingly to achieve this aim.

Out of crisis can come transformative and positive change: some lessons from history

By IOE Editor, on 19 February 2021

By Luke Sibieta, Research Fellow, Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) & Education Policy Institute (EPI)

Lost learning over the pandemic is likely to lead to significant long-term costs if pupils are unable to catch-up over the coming years. I have recently argued that missing half a year of normal schooling could amount to lost lifetime earnings of about £40,000 for each child in school today, based on existing evidence on the returns to schooling. This is not a precise estimate or projection, which would be effectively impossible at present, but an illustration of the scale of the risk we face. There are also much bigger estimates of the long-run cost of lost learning that go into the trillions after accounting for potential effects on economic growth. Policymakers should be responding now in a way that recognises the high probability and risk of massive long-run costs.

The scale of the potential costs calls for radical action and a massive amount of extra resources. However, there is also a need to focus on quality. Creating more weeks or hours of schooling to even things out on a ledger would not achieve very much if it can’t deliver high-quality teaching or just leads to teachers and pupils feeling totally drained, or worse, punished. Indeed, there is a wider lesson. If the sole goal of catch-up is to get back to a hypothetical, pre-pandemic benchmark, it is unlikely to galvanise support for radical change or extra resources. Should we just be aiming to get the attainment gap back to where it was pre-crisis?

Creating more weeks or hours of schooling to even things out on a ledger would not achieve very much if it can’t deliver high-quality teaching or just leads to teachers and pupils feeling totally drained, or worse, punished.

Here, there are some very clear lessons from the last century when the country suffered massive upheaval during wars, which then directly spurred positive changes to the school and education system.

World War 1 and the 1918 Fisher Act – missed opportunity

Children’s lives were turned upside down during World War 1. Many will have seen fathers and other family members go off to fight and never return.  Many missed school to help at home whilst their mothers also took on new jobs to help the war effort. Many teenagers went off to fight and die themselves.

The disruption to schooling, however, was lessened because there wasn’t all that much schooling going on. The school leaving age was 12 and very few children went to secondary schools, which charged fees. During the war, the President of the Board of Education was H.A.L. Fisher (MP for Sheffield Hallam and whose underpants formed a key detail of Operation Mincemeat in 1943). From 1916, he toured the country and was shocked by the level and under-financing of schooling. This directly led to the 1918 Fisher Act, which raised the school leaving age to 14, with ambitions to increase it to 16 and create a system of free secondary schooling.

The economic depression of the 1920s and burdens of war debt meant that most of the main provisions were either delayed or dropped altogether. The share of pupils staying on to secondary schools only increased from 10% to 14% between 1910 and 1938.

The Fisher Act was high on ambition but ultimately represented a missed opportunity.

1944 Butler Act – the creation of free secondary schools

The 1944 Butler Act is much more well known. It formed part of more general efforts to create the welfare state in the wake of World War 2, alongside the Beveridge Report and creation of the National Health Service.

As is well known, children’s education was massively disrupted as many had to leave towns and cities as evacuees. As has been rightly pointed out, many children got much joy and new skills through these experiences, which will have also happened today. But, it is important to recall that provision of formal education would have been fairly limited in the 1940s, even without a war. Most children still left school at 14, if that, and with no formal qualifications. Universal secondary schooling was still a pipedream.

Appointed as President of the Board of Education in 1941, R.A. (Rab) Butler quickly developed an ambitious plan for reform of the school system. Convincing Churchill of the merits of the legislation was difficult at the height of the war, but was partly achieved (or assumed) through Butler’s complementing of Churchill’s cat in his bedroom. The 1944 Butler Act then created a nationwide system of free secondary schools and raised the school leaving age to 15. There were further plans to raise it to 16 when practical, though this got postponed till 1973 (that pesky war debt again). This led to the tripartite system of grammar schools, secondary moderns and secondary technical schools. The act also established the present system free school meals and (now abolished) system of free milk.

Whilst there is much debate about the role of grammar schools, it is also important to recognise the achievements of the Butler Act in creating a system of free secondary schooling and increasing years of schooling. Prior to the law, 60-70% of young people left school at age 14 or below. Studies of the increase in the school leaving age to 15 in 1947 show that it is likely to have increased adult earnings amongst those affected by about 10-14% per year. Whilst the increase in the school leaving age to 16 was delayed till 1973, many studies have shown large and positive effects on adult earnings.

The Butler Act was therefore a significant achievement in extending schooling and increasing life chances. It may have been more successful if the increase in the school leaving age to 16 had not been delayed by 25 years.

US GI Bills – creating new opportunities

Looking across the Atlantic, President Roosevelt signed the GI Bill into law in 1944.  This very famous piece of legislation provided a range of benefits to veterans across a range of different areas, in recognition of their sacrifice and the disruption to their education. This included very significant support for education, training and payment of college fees. A range of studies have shown positive effects amongst those were able to take advantage of the bill’s main features, and the GI Bill is almost part of the American psyche.

Be positive, radical and pay for it

Looking back through history, large disruptions to schooling and education during war time have often been followed by large transformations to the education system and extensions to schooling. However, policymakers in the UK have not always been willing to pay for the most transformative ideas.

Today, we are again facing massive disruption to schooling, of a kind not seen since World War 2. Rather than setting narrow goals to get back to a hypothetical pre-pandemic benchmark, perhaps we should also be setting positive and transformative goals. And we should be willing to pay for the resources required.

Setting such goals is a much harder question. This is partly because we have already implemented some of the obvious changes, such as raising the school leaving age to 16. This has since been increased to an education leaving age of 18 in England, though this is not seriously enforced and does not apply in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.

The most worthy goals for today are likely to be harder and more nuanced. At present, children from poorer families leave school 18 months behind their peers from richer families. Only about two thirds of young people aged 19-24 possess an A level equivalent qualification or higher. Perhaps we should be setting a goal for all children to leave education at age 18 with qualifications that are high-quality and reflect a broad and deep curriculum.  Achieving such a goal would require a relentless focus on high-quality teaching, joined-up action across all parts of the education system (from the early years through to colleges) and with other public services. Maybe that should be COVID’s legacy for the education system.

Housing wealth, not bursaries, explains much of private school participation for those without high income

By IOE Editor, on 4 February 2021

By Jake Anders and Golo Henseke

Although less than a tenth of children in Britain attend private schools, who goes matters to all of us. This is because of the considerable labour market advantages that have persistently been associated with attending a private school, including recruitment into the upper echelons of power in British business, politics, administration and media. As a result, in recent work published in Education Economics we looked into who send their children to private schools. In brief, despite all the talk about bursaries, public benefits and attempts at widening participation, who goes to private school remains as closely tied to family income and wealth as it did at the end of the 1990s. This casts doubt on accounts of real progress in opening up the sector to a more diverse student body.

In the paper we demonstrate quite how concentrated private school attendance is among the highest levels of household income (see image). The proportion of children attending private school is close to zero across the vast majority of the income distribution, and doesn’t rise above 10% of the cohort except among those with the top 5% of incomes. Only half of those in the top 1% send their kids to private school.

Income concentration of private school participation, 1997-2018.


On one level this is unsurprising. Sending your child to a private school costs a lot of money: in 2018 average annual fees were £14,280 for day schools and £33,684 for boarding schools. Not many people have more than £1000 per month available to spend on school fees unless they have some of the highest incomes in the country. But what about those who do attend even though they’re from families with incomes below these levels, even if there are not many of them?

One potential explanation, much flaunted by private schools themselves, are bursaries. Indeed, our analysis found that about 1 in 6 private school pupils received some form of financial support such as bursaries or fee reductions – does that explain our observation and suggest these are doing real work to open up the private school sector to a wider stretch of society? Sadly, not: it’s not the case that all kinds of financial support are targeted at lower income groups (some are academic or music scholarships, for example) and if we focus on those outside the top income decile, a large majority – up to four out of five children – are not receiving grants or bursaries.

Furthermore, among those who received it, average financial support was around £4,900 in 2011-2018. This is little changed from earlier periods that we also analysed and, because of rising fees, paid for a smaller fraction of those fees (35% compared with 57%) than it did in 1997-2003. Taken together, these cast serious doubt on the idea that this is making a big difference to widening participation in private schools – or that it’s playing a growing role in achieving this in recent years.

As such, we set out to explore other sources of potential financing for private school fees that might explain their affordability at lower levels of income: housing wealth and how it has grown in recent decades. We find that a 10% rise in a family’s housing wealth raises private school participation by 0.9 percentage points. This is actually similar to the association we see between family income and private school participation – among those with high levels of income. However, unlike the income link, the role of increased housing growth is evident much further down the income distribution. This suggests that access to wealth, rather than support from bursaries and grants, is playing an important role in helping these families send their children to private schools.

These findings have clear implications for things that need to change. Our findings imply that while existing bursaries offered by private schools do perform a somewhat progressive role, they are far too small and scarce to make much of a real dent in private schools’ exclusivity. Means-tested bursaries would need to expand considerably in reach and scale, and the selection criteria should take into account family wealth, not just income. Private schools need to up their game dramatically in this respect, otherwise calls for externally imposed reforms to effect real change will only grow louder.

This research was covered by in an article by The Observer.


Scarring effects of Furlough

By IOE Editor, on 2 February 2021

By Professor Paul Gregg, University of Bath

The Chancellors furlough scheme is a dam holding back a torrent of unemployment. A long history of research has shown that open unemployment has sizable costs to workers after they have returned to work – called scarring. But these scarring effects will not hit all workers equally – they will primarily impact those from the younger generation due to the important role of work experience in the process.

Furlough vs unemployment

For prime-age and older workers, the main cost of unemployment comes from the dislocation from the existing job. The quality of the replacement job match is lower because a range of experience and knowledge is underused. This can be specific knowledge to the firm, industry or occupation or the seniority/responsibility in the job role. Long-term unemployment sees greater loss of application of this knowledge and experience as jobs are further away from the old position across the domains just listed. Some of this cost of dislocation is recovered by later job moves but typically not that cost associated with long-term unemployment. Here then furlough is totally different than unemployment as there is no such dislocation. This also represents the economic value of keeping so many hard hit businesses afloat. It would take a lot of time for replacement businesses to start-up and then to grow to be as productive in their use of labour as those that would be closed without furlough and other supports. These supports are thus limiting the economic destruction of productive potential that a deep recession creates.

For younger workers, the story of unemployment is less about the lost job, which are generally lower paid entry positions. Rather it is the lack of accrual of the crucial work experience which attracts pay rises and allows job moves/promotions which attract even large pay rises. A years tenure in work for a young person generates pay growth 5% above that for an older experienced worker (more after one year in a job than 5 or so and at younger ages) and a job-to-job move generates around 12%. This is how young people progress through the labour market and build careers. Older workers also get pay rises when moving jobs and at short tenures but they are less common and smaller in magnitude. Here then furlough is likely to be very similar in its effects to unemployment. People are drawing a salary but not actually gaining experience or promotion opportunities.

Thus for older workers with extensive tenure in their current post, furlough should not result in the costs of unemployment but it will disrupt the gaining of experience and potentially job moves that are so essential for young people.

The outlook for the younger generation

In a bad recession youth unemployment and the proportion of young people not in work or education often rise to 25 to 30%. Upwards of 20% accumulate substantial periods (a year or more) out of work between the ages of 18 and 25. Now furloughing of young people has been very common, partly because of the sectors at the heart of the lockdowns but also because of their lower seniority. A million young people were furloughed in early July (the earliest I have found giving an age breakdown) – some 20% of the total at that time – whilst just under another million were not in work or education. This was around 30% of all young people either on furlough or out of work and college. Among those aged 18-24 it was 35%. By the end of October young people on furlough fell to 350,000 but is no doubt higher again now. The year of Covid overall is thus likely to have seen 25% of young people not in college not gaining normal work experiences, very much in line with a normal recession.

The better news is that young people in similar situations do recover a substantial portion of these wage loses. Graduates in a normal recession do not suffer a lot of unemployment but do get work in lower status and paying occupations, losing 3% pay growth per year in a suppressed labour market (normally for 3 years after a recession). But they do see faster earnings growth after a recession ends, recouping about half the losses. This is the likely situation for today’s Covid generation of young people. Provided of course, that the end of furlough is not associated with an explosion of youth unemployment.

The policy response to youth unemployment is a programme like the new Kickstart programme to give that missing experience. But whilst good number of places are promised by firms, there have been nearly no actual starts because of Lockdown. This can’t help until furlough ends. Rather it is making sure of a strong recovery from the Summer that is the only prescription that can limit the damage of lost work experience of young people through the pandemic.

How can policy-makers and parents support home learning during lockdown?

By IOE Editor, on 27 January 2021

This article first appeared on the Economics Observatory

By Dr. Laura Outhwaite, CEPEO Research Fellow 

With schools again closed, disadvantaged children need laptops and internet connections to access remote education. Parents can support home learning by making their children’s wellbeing the priority and focusing on the quality of learning experiences, not the quantity.

In January 2021, schools in the UK have again switched to online learning for most children, due to the resurgence of Covid-19 across the country. Consequently, there is a renewed emphasis on ensuring that children receive the best possible education while staying at home.

There are concerns that the impact of further school closures will disproportionately affect some children, such as those from lower socio-economic backgrounds (Eyles and Elliot Major, 2021). Data from before Covid-19 show that mothers’ education is strongly associated with increased parental investments in educational resources, such as toys and books in the home, and higher family income. These factors are significantly associated with children’s academic outcomes (Macmillan and Tominey, 2019).

During the pandemic, families with lower incomes are also more likely to face challenges providing their children with a high-quality learning environment for reasons including less physical space, less access to computers, and slower and less reliable internet connectivity.

While some of these challenges are especially difficult to overcome, such as limited physical space, policy-makers should be doing all they can to take action where possible, notably ensuring that all children have access to suitable laptop computers and a reliable internet connection that allows them to engage effectively with online learning resources and virtual lessons that schools are now required to provide.

Families are also facing unprecedented challenges with balancing children’s schoolwork alongside the demands of parents’ jobs and other stresses related to the pandemic. Consequently, parents should be assured that they are providing a good quality home learning environment by looking after their children’s wellbeing, providing access to a broad range of resources, and focusing on quality, rather than quantity.

What should policy-makers do?

Statistics from a representative survey conducted online of families with school-aged children in England during the pandemic emphasise a ‘digital divide’ in access to technological devices for home learning. Results show that around 15% of primary school-aged children and 20% of secondary school-aged children in the poorest third of families, based on household income, have no access to a computer or tablet device for schoolwork, compared with approximately 5-10% of children in the richest third of families (Institute for Fiscal Studies, IFS, 2020).

Similar survey data on teachers show only 10% reporting that all their pupils have access to the internet. This figure varies significantly by pupil background, with 5% of state school teachers reporting that all their children have access to the internet, compared with 51% of private school teachers (Sutton Trust, 2021). These data collected via teachers can be considered a more reliable estimate of children’s internet access, as many family surveys are conducted online and may therefore be unintentionally biased to households with adequate resources already in place.

To date, the government has failed to ensure that all children, regardless of their background, have access to the appropriate technology resources to engage with online learning. In April 2020, in response to the first lockdown, the Department for Education announced a £85 million rollout of 200,000 laptops for disadvantaged children to support learning from home. This figure falls short of the 540,000 children calculated to be eligible for the scheme by the Office of the Children’s Commissioner based on the Department for Education’s published criteria.

Moreover, by mid-June 2020, only 115,000 devices had been delivered to local authorities or academy trusts for distribution to children (IFS, 2020). This implies that only 21% of disadvantaged children were provided with access to the technological support that they need to learn from home by this point. Little progress has been made since then, with widespread reports from schools of failures from the government in meeting their proposed targets.

During the current lockdown, the Department for Education announced further laptop provision aiming to reach more than one million children and young people by April 2021. But this still leaves substantial time during which some disadvantaged children will not be able to access resources, with the risk that these children will fall further behind. To ensure that children are able to access the remote learning that schools are providing, regardless of their background, it is imperative that these targets are met efficiently and effectively.

Providing access to a reliable internet connection also remains an unresolved issue. According to current Department for Education guidance, disadvantaged families may be able to access increases in mobile data, free of charge, if they are customers of selected telecoms providers and must request access via their school or local authority.

Critics argue that this approach increases the administrative burden for schools and suggest that universal zero-ratings for educational content, such as Oak National Academy, would be more effective than making disadvantaged families ask for handouts. Internet providers have since highlighted challenges of zero-rating educational resources, as content is often hosted on external sources, such as YouTube.

Regardless of these challenges, children still need to access online learning if the negative effects of the pandemic on their education are to be mitigated. Policy-makers should be taking the lead on co-ordinating effective action in ensuring that all children, regardless of their background, have equitable and reliable access to learning at home.

What can parents do?

Research carried out during the first lockdown in England found that children spent, on average, 4.5 hours a day on educational activities, including online classes, other schoolwork, private tutoring and other educational activities. This is a 25% reduction in learning time for primary school pupils and a 30% reduction for secondary school pupils compared with children’s usual routine, as measured using comparable data from 2014/15 (IFS, 2020).

Another nationally representative survey highlights that 81% of children with limited access to appropriate technology and study space, and 52% of those eligible for pupil premium funding, are less engaged in remote learning, compared with their classmates (National Foundation for Educational Research, NFER, 2020).

Nevertheless, working parents, particularly mothers, report that the home schooling that did occur during the first lockdown placed significant demands on their time, as they attempt to achieve a balance between work and supporting their children’s learning (Doyle, 2020Anders et al,2020). Overall, these data suggest that the school closures during lockdown may widen educational inequalities, based on who can access the educational resources and parental support that they need for home learning.

Given such time pressures and the stressful context that lockdown can bring, it is important for parents to make a priority of their children’s wellbeing and focus on the quality of home learning experiences and interactions, rather than worrying about a shortfall in quantity.

For parents who now find themselves taking on the role of teachers, it is important to focus on children’s mental health and wellbeing, as studies show their fundamental importance for learning and development (Panayiotou et al, 2019).

Recommendations from the Child Mind Institute suggest the idea of a ‘developmental checklist’, which includes questions such as: ‘is my child sleeping enough and eating a somewhat balanced diet?’; ‘are they getting some form of exercise every day?’; ‘are they getting some quality time with family?’; and ‘do they use some screen time to keep in touch with friends?’. Establishing and keeping a daily routine that meets the needs of an individual family is also recommended best practice.

Several other organisations – such as Oak National Academy, the National Literacy Trust, the Children’s Commissioner and Emerging Minds – also have useful and evidence-based online resources to support parents and their children during the pandemic.

There are also several key areas where parents might focus their efforts to enrich learning experiences for their children at home, mindful of their own time constraints. For example, educational apps can benefit children’s learning outcomes (Griffith et al, 2020Madigan et al,2020): educational technologies that are ‘gamified’ and child-centred are also particularly beneficial, especially for children’s motivation and enjoyment (Lai and Bower, 2019).

Research also shows that children can successfully use educational apps independently (Outhwaite et al,2019) and so may be a useful tool when parents need to focus on other things. In terms of when and where parents can provide support, some studies highlight that co-viewing technology-based content with young children is beneficial, (Madigan et al, 2020), especially if children are still developing their language skills (Outhwaite et al, 2020).

While there are many school and technology-based solutions, parents should also remember that home learning does not always have to be working through a worksheet or engaging with an educational app. Research shows informal, everyday learning experiences also significantly benefit young children, in terms of their conceptual knowledge and language skills. Such activities include cooking and playing card or board games for maths (Zhang et al, 2020), and reading together, writing postcards and notes, such as shopping lists, for reading and writing (Meyer et al, 2017).

For older children, reading a broad range of texts, including fiction books may also be good for improving their future educational outcomes (Jerrim and Moss, 2018). In terms of downtime, parents should not worry if their children like to spend time on computer games as there is evidence that some games can support their spatial and mathematical abilities (Bos et al, 2014). They can also support children’s wellbeing and feeling of connection with their peers, which is particularly important when they are unable to spend time together in person (Johannes et al, 2020).


Home learning during Covid-19 remains a challenge for all involved. It is imperative that policy-makers deliver on their provision of laptop computers and take a lead on providing reliable internet access for disadvantaged children. This will ensure that all children, regardless of their background, have equitable access to online learning resources and the virtual lessons that schools are now required to provide.

Parents can also support their children by making a priority of their own and their children’s wellbeing and by not stressing about the small things – learning is important, but school is about so much more than maths and reading, and this can be reflected in their home experiences.

Where can I find out more?

Who are experts on this question?

  • Laura Outhwaite, Centre for Education Policy and Equalising Opportunities, UCL, London
  • Lindsey Macmillan, Centre for Education Policy and Equalising Opportunities, UCL, London
  • Jake Anders, Centre for Education Policy and Equalising Opportunities, UCL, London
  • Jo Van Herwegen, Centre for Education Policy and Equalising Opportunities, UCL, London

Exams 2021: So what now? Part 2: CEPEO’s response to the DfE/Ofqual consultation on summer assessment 2020/21

By IOE Editor, on 21 January 2021

By Jake Anders, Lindsey Macmillan and Gill Wyness

Given the widespread disruption to learning this academic year and the substantial risk of continued disruption to schooling into the summer term, the government were right to take the decision to cancel exams in England in their usual form – indeed having done so earlier as many were calling for would have made the implementation of a wider range of alternatives feasible. But now that the government, working with Ofqual, have turned to decide how GCSE and A level grades should be awarded this year, what should they do? In our recent blog we made the case that assessment should be flexible in terms of timing and content, but that it should continue to be externally set and marked, to ensure fairness and rigour.

Unfortunately, the government’s new proposals do not take that message on board and instead take teacher assessment as a given. As a result, their current consultation is framed without allowing for the opportunity to consider this fundamental aspect of the government’s approach. In setting out these plans, Gavin Williamson said that they put their trust in teachers, not algorithms. But this is a false dichotomy, as our proposed approach shows. In addition, as we argued last year, asking teachers to assign grades accurately and fairly is asking them to do a near impossible task – and one that will add considerably to their hugely expanded workloads: fundamentally, trusting teachers can only go so far when it comes to achieving fair and rigorous assessment.

Nevertheless, since the framing gives no alternative, in our response to the consultation, we make suggestions that will minimise the unfairness that this approach will cause. In particular, we highlight that, if teacher assessment must be used, it must take unequal learning loss into account, and it must be subject to a system of external quality assurance.

Dealing with Learning Loss

Assessment is important, not just so that students can continue to the next stage of their education, training or employment, but also to ensure that they continue to engage with schooling for the remainder of the academic year and, hence, minimise the learning loss that will be experienced. We therefore agree that students should be assessed in some manner, and that this should be through papers set by the exam boards and provided to the schools (as is proposed). Both for this reason and wider aims of fairness, it should be compulsory for these to be used by schools as the primary basis of the teacher assessed grades for both GCSEs and A levels. Flexibility in the timing of these assessments will allow this possibility despite the ongoing risks to disruption of schooling.

However, as is widely documented, pupils have had very different experiences of learning this year, so they will be at very different stages when they come to be assessed. For this reason, it is deeply unfair to award pupils grades based solely on the standard they are performing when they are assessed(which is proposed to be at some point between May-June 2021). While it is important to push the assessment date to the latest time period possible (to allow students maximum time to catch up), it is unlikely that students will be able to recover from lost learning, and it is inevitable that students will be at different levels when they are assessed through no fault of their own.

This is fundamentally different from the philosophy that DfE and Ofqual have taken according to the consultation document, which states that students should be assessed at the standard at which they are currently performing. While we agree that it is important that these grades proxy pupils’ potential for that next stage, given the important role they play in the transition to further education and employment, it cannot be fair for pupils whose education has been disrupted the most to be systematically disadvantaged by an approach that ignores this. As such, it is vital that this year’s assessment system take this unequal opportunity to learn into account.

An important aspect of that would be for the papers set by exams boards to have several flexible components. There should be flexibility in the timing, to ensure that all pupils are able to sit them in their educational setting despite the risks of further disruption. The papers themselves should also be flexible, with teachers able to account for differentially disrupted curricula by deciding which topics are covered in the questions that students are asked to answer.

Quality assurance

Given the exam boards will be required to set these exams, the best approach would be also to use their expertise in marking them. As well as being far more rigorous, using the exam boards’ available, paid workforce to do the marking would avoid placing a huge additional burden on teachers’ workloads, as well as avoiding the risks of exposing them to unfair pressure from pupils and parents.

But in the absence of this option, we agree with Ofqual that exam boards should still play an important role in providing assessment guidance and monitoring. We agree with the proposals to involve exam boards in providing support and information to schools and colleges to help them meet the assessment requirements, and to ensure internal quality assurance. Exam boards should also be involved in external quality assurance. At the very least this should include extensive sampling, at subject level, the evidence on which the submitted grades were based. Judging by last year’s experiences, there is good reason to suggest that independent schools should be a particular focus of external quality assurance activity.

We also argue that the exam boards should be responsible for the appeals processes, rather than schools and teachers being involved in reconsidering the marks they have provided. Again, this distance between candidate and assessor is vital to ensure a rigour and fairness in the process that is not susceptible to inappropriate pressure, while also protecting individual teachers and schools from unfair criticism from parents and the media.

Finally, it is crucial that the appeals process take place before universities receive students’ grades. This is critical to avoid the deeply unfair situation of last year, with students apparently missing offers and losing their university place, only to have their grades later overturned.

Making these decisions quickly will provide much needed clarity for schools, pupils and their parents. However, the serious problem of learning loss will remain. Students transitioning to further education or into the labour market will be doing so having received less education than in a normal year. Adjusting grades to take account of this is a necessary short-term solution to avoid embedding unfairness in the transition process, but even more important is a plan to support catch up for all those who have fallen behind, which will be most acute for students from disadvantaged backgrounds. This will require significant commitment and investment. This needs to be recognised immediately to prevent further delay.

Exams 2021: So what now?

By IOE Editor, on 4 January 2021

By Jake Anders, Lindsey Macmillan, and Gill Wyness

While the uncertainties of a global pandemic make this one of the most volatile periods of education policy in history, if there is one lesson we should all have learned since last March, it is that indecision is costly. This has proven true repeatedly for public health and looks just as relevant for education. As we saw with the exam fiasco of summer 2020, the failure to act decisively led to there being little alternative but to assign students grades based on teachers’ predictions of what they would have achieved. This sub-optimal situation removed any final contribution on the part of the student, and, more importantly, resulted in significant biases across school type and family background. Of course, back in summer 2020, the government had little time for the advance planning that any alternatives (such as ongoing assessment) would have required. But this year, they have no such excuse, and inaction now poses the substantial risk of being left without alternatives again. That is why the government must act now to ensure that we don’t have a repeat performance in summer 2021.

For exams to give all pupils the same chance to succeed, one of the pre-requisites is that they have had the same amount of time to prepare. However, we know that is not the case from looking at patterns in disruption to their studies. While both exam cohorts (year 11 and year 13) missed up to 5 months schooling in the academic year 2019-20, the disruption has continued during this crucial exam year and in much less uniform a manner. Unfortunately, England does not publish data on attendance rates by year group, but we can look more broadly at attendance rates in all state-funded schools by region over the autumn term. The figure below illustrates that while attendance rates started the academic year between 85% and 95%, by mid-November we were seeing rates substantially below this (falling from 88% to 83% on average) driven by widespread – but regionally varying – self-isolation by both individual pupils and education ‘bubbles’. In mid-November, attendance rates were lowest in the North West and Yorkshire. By mid-December, with what we now understand to be the prevalence of the new variant increasing, London, the East, and the South East had all seen stark declines in their attendance rates. In contrast, the South West has remained near the top of attendance rates throughout.

Figure: Weekly attendance in state-funded schools by region, 10th September 2020 – 10th December 2020.
Source: https://explore-education-statistics.service.gov.uk/find-statistics/attendance-in-education-and-early-years-settings-during-the-coronavirus-covid-19-outbreak


This disruption seems likely to get worse still. The Christmas holidays were anything but a break for schools and teachers, with an announcement on setting up in-school testing released shortly before the end of term (here) and the long-awaited announcement on returning to school made by DfE on December 30th. Secondary schools across the country have now moved to remote learning this week. While the majority of primary schools remain open, an increasing proportion (upwards of 15%) will not open their doors to pupils for the foreseeable future, either under direct DfE instruction through the schools contingency framework, or acting unilaterally over fears for teachers’ and students’ health. The DfE currently state that the majority of schools will re-open on January 18th, but with spiralling infection rates and stretched hospital capacities in every region, this position looks increasingly untenable. We await the Prime Minister’s announcement this evening, but many suspect that all schools will be closed for the foreseeable future.

In a blog post from November (here), we laid out the evidence that points to exams being the best route forward for school pupils in 2021, but advocating important changes (particularly focused on allowing greater flexibility),  given the uncertainty that was already evident at that point. It is becoming increasingly clear that exams, at least in their usual form, cannot go ahead – this makes the changes that we continue to call for vital and urgent. The current exam plans cannot provide the level playing field that it is claimed they will deliver, given the extent of differential learning experiences of those from different regions and backgrounds in this school year alone. So what now?

A levels and GCSEs

The evidence clearly points to avoiding centre or teacher assessed grades where possible. We, therefore, argue that externally set and marked exams remain the fairest option to all pupils taking terminal exams.

But these do not have to take place in the current format proposed, during a three-week period in June 2021. Instead, there is a strong case for more flexible timing for testing pupils, allowing exams to be spread across the summer term and, crucially, allowing pupils to sit these exams at different times to deal with any continuing need for closures during this period. While this will involve more work for exam boards given the need to provide multiple versions of each exam, this is the fairest way to ensure that pupils do not miss out on external assessments. The fact that it requires more work only underlines the need for swift action.

Further, we must ensure that this year’s exams include flexible content. This would help to reduce the unfairness caused by the fact that different schools will have been able to cover different content through interruptions to in-person schooling. These reformed exams would be more like university finals: pupils could be given a wider set of options and be asked to answer a smaller proportion of these, for example, 2 questions from 6 alternatives covering a wide sweep of the curriculum.

This approach would have substantial similarities with that already announced in Wales – also supporting fairness for university applications between applicants from the two countries – and would ensure that pupils can still be awarded grades that they have earned while providing robust information on achievement for universities and future employers. Scotland, on the other hand, has cancelled their exams altogether – with National 5s (the GCSE equivalent) cancelled several months ago, and Highers (the A level equivalent) cancelled just before Christmas. Scotland will instead base awards on teacher judgement, and while this is not an optimal situation, announcing this well in advance gives schools and teachers ample time for ongoing assessment and observation.

Primary school testing

While Key Stage 1 tests have been suspended for 2021, current plans are for Key Stage 2 tests to go ahead, although the school-level results will not be published. Given that these tests are primarily used as indicators of school performance, which is going to be measured with substantial error this year, there are serious questions about their value to bodies such as Ofsted with whom they are still proposed to be shared for accountability purposes. As such, there is a strong case for abandoning these tests altogether given the current circumstances. This would significantly reduce the burden on primary school teachers, who are working under very difficult conditions, and would remove the stress on pupils and parents associated with preparing for these tests under such difficult circumstances.

Action this day

The longer it takes for these steps to be taken, the harder it will be for them to be implemented, until the point where they are no longer feasible. At that point, there is a major risk of a repeat of last year’s fiasco – but without the excuse of not having had time to prepare a better alternative. We’ve seen yet another example today of the decision making process in Whitehall lagging behind that of Holyrood. In the words of the Scottish national anthem, it’s time for the Prime Minister “tae think again.”

CEPEO: our team in 2020

By IOE Editor, on 14 December 2020

By Katherine Rychliski, CEPEO Centre Manager

This year was a big one for the CEPEO team. In the year that we launched we have published a vast number of new research papers, have been awarded multiple research bids, been interviewed by various media channels, and watched our research make direct policy impact. For such a small team, we are very proud of how we’ve grown. People tend to overestimate what can be achieved in a short time but greatly underestimate what can be achieved in a year or two. I’d say this was the case for CEPEO in 2020.

However, in this piece, I’m not going to wow you with our achievements or findings – instead, I want to share our lived reality of this year and provide some insight into how our team rode the storm.

As I’ve watched our team, I’ve discovered that when we all care about our cause and try to add value to other people’s lives, a lot starts to fall into place. I can honestly say, no one tells our team members to work hard or make a difference. We all care about our cause in our unique way and seriously “go for it”.

While we’ve kept you up to date with our newsletters throughout the year, our successes haven’t happened overnight: our team has put in the effort over time. They kept at it. They cared. As Centre Manager, I wasn’t surprised about what our team was able to accomplish in a year, but I want to highlight the unique stories of the year from each team members – how they experienced 2020 at CEPEO. I hope you enjoy their stories as much as I do.

Lindsey Macmillan, Director

Setting up a research centre just as a global pandemic hit has led to an interesting, at times exasperating, and totally exhausting first year. But this year has also created numerous opportunities to contribute to evidence-led policy making, through the variety of different outputs that we’ve created together as a team.

My work on the Social Mobility Commission report ‘The long shadow of deprivation: differences in opportunities across England’ really stands out to me this year, as this report has been with me at every stage of the pandemic.

It’s hard to believe it was just February when I was presenting our initial findings at a workshop in a window-less basement at IFS. There must have been around 20 of us in the room, and it’s one of the last times I was surrounded by that many people. By mid-March, in the first of the new-normal online meetings, I spent most of the call on mute due to a suspiciously terrible cough. Yet the first draft of the report was due that Friday and I hadn’t yet processed the enormity of the pandemic.

I recall April phone calls with the Commission where I was locked away in whichever space I could find, typically hiding under my stairs. The re-drafting of the report often took place late into the evening, due to having to work around homeschooling my 5- and 3-year-old. Despite all of this, the report has been the start of some important conversations with local leaders about how best to equalise opportunities across places, feeding directly into the levelling up agenda.

This year’s successes have been undoubtedly down to this incredible group of people that come together to create CEPEO. From the boundless energy to the constant positivity (and hilarious chat) in our weekly team meetings, I couldn’t ask for a better group of people to work through a pandemic with.

Gillian Wyness, Deputy Director

My unforgettable moment of 2020 was around the time exams were cancelled because of the pandemic, and it was decided that teachers would predict the grades of students instead. I’ve co-authored two studies into the accuracy of teacher predictions, both published as CEPEO working papers earlier in the year, so my phone started ringing pretty quickly after the announcement.

But things really went crazy when the predicted grades were finally released. It was the middle of August and one of the hottest days of the year, and I was away visiting in-laws in Exeter. Myself and my partner had found some handy, centrally located accommodation in a new student halls of residence building in the town centre. And it was from there that I found myself talking to Branwen Jeffries on the BBC News at 6 about inaccuracies in predicted grades. The room was pretty basic, with no lamps, just strip lighting on the roof, and I had foolishly worn a white shirt because of the heat. The result was my face was lit up like the moon while the rest of the room was in the darkness around me. Thankfully, the clip was well received by my colleagues, friends, and the various people (including someone I hadn’t seen for 20 years) who got in touch with me after it showed on News at 10. I am really pleased to have been able to promote the centre and our work on such an important topic this year.

Jake Anders – Deputy Director

Jake is on paternity leave with his precious new daughter (who we admit we have seen dressed in her own a CEPEO branded babygrow) and so rightly was focusing on the new one at the time this was written.

Samuel Sims – Lecturer

This year has been unique in many ways. One particular novelty has been working from home at the same time as my wife. She is a GP and was forced to conduct her work remotely for a period early in the pandemic. During Lockdown 1, I remember my wife calling round her most elderly and vulnerable patients to check if they were OK. My initial response to his was pride and awe – this was the NHS in action, reaching out to protect those who needed it. Inevitably, however, some of her elderly patients are hard of hearing (I will be the same one day) and required a higher volume phone call. Those of you who were on Zoom calls with me back in April might therefore also have heard the NHS in action, despite my wife and I working in separate rooms!

Asma Benhenda – Research Fellow

One of the things I was the most excited about this year was publishing a book about teacher policies and educational inequalities (in French, Tous des bons profs, Fayard, September 2020). It was my dream as a kid to be a writer. I didn’t dream about writing books about education policy as an 8-year-old (my role model was Joe March from Little Women, slightly different style) but still, I kind of feel I accomplished one of my life goals! It’s really amazing to be able to write for a wider public and to contribute to the policy debate, which I feel is at the core of CEPEO’s mission. I wrote the book during the spring: an extremely challenging period as the lockdown was very tough, but the silver lining was that I had very little distractions and no choice but to get my writing done !”

Laura Outhwaite – Research Fellow

Who would have thought my brother would have been my new colleague in 2020! I escaped the city back to my family home during the lockdown, the longest period I’d been back since I was 18 and left to go to university. While I faced many of the challenges in the transition to working from home, I came to value my time with family immensely. Many of my ideas and new research plans came from talking them through with my brother (who is anything but an academic), typically on our government approved walks. Looking back, I feel incredibly lucky to have the support of my family and incredibly proud that many of those research plans conceived in the midst of COVID panic and lockdowns will come to fruition just after Christmas. I am proud to be part of such a supportive centre that values and encourages my creativity and work, and more importantly, cares about equalising opportunities for all as much as I do.

David Stoker – Communications Officer

My highlight was developing our centre’s animation. This kind of strategic storytelling, facilitating the team’s discussion about whether inequality is more like a running race or train tracks, was very rewarding to me. Even though I am yet to meet most of my team in person (!) I feel very connected with CEPEO, the cause and the talented researchers I have the privilege to work with. They are very productive and give me lots of juicy content to publicise and repurpose. As a supply teacher in primary schools one day a week, I have the added benefit of seeing the importance of our work from the front line. For 2021 I’m excited to continue our mission of explaining how inequality works and how to equalise opportunities. I’m grateful to be supported to develop my skills with infographics training and curious what insights we discover next.


Where We Are after Lockdown 2: Time to move from Crisis Management to a Recovery Plan

By IOE Editor, on 1 December 2020

By Professor Paul Gregg, University of Bath

The last two weeks have revealed that the government has woken up to the reality of the nature of pandemic and its economic effects. The most immediate shift has been to recognise that in the absence of substantial downward pressure on socialising the virus spreads exponentially. The massive error behind Lockdown 2 was the Summer return to almost normality, just no festivals. Indeed, the government actively encouraged people to return to restaurants and pubs helping to drive infection rates back up, which again they were way too slow to respond too. As soon as Lockdown 1 ended, the return was inevitable as insufficient downward force was being applied, given the track and trace system never really got off the ground. After Lockdown 2, we will not be all Christmas parties and New Year celebrations with almost none of the country in tier 1. Many areas, like my home city, went into Lockdown 2 in tier 1 and will emerge in tier 3. It will have to be a cool quiet mid-Winter this time to stop Lockdown 3 being the result. The government is now looking to suppress the virus till vaccines are available in sufficient quantity, which plans announced suggest will be around March.

What are the economic costs?

Furlough has been extended to cover this period as the only current alternatives are very unpalatable – letting the virus rip uncontrolled or business restrictions without government support and thus mass job losses. The Bank of England has allowed this extension to March to be possible through further Quantitative Easing (QE) buying up government debt. The government’s attempts to reduce spending by reducing financial support in plans announced in the late summer and early autumn are the can that has been kicked down the road again. So the government is now trapped in the current spending scenario until there’s an endgame from vaccines.

The state of the economy in September, before local lockdowns, became widespread and Lockdown 2, was 8.5% below its pre-Covid peak. This was the peak of re-opening the economy. Obviously, this high point of openness in the economy will not be reached again now until April at the earliest. In March 2021, one year on from the start of the pandemic, the economy will still be 10% down. Only the Great Depression compares with this. Without the government Furlough scheme, with its massive costs, 10% lower GDP would mean 10% lower employment, as firms cannot hold staff when under such extreme pressure. Unemployment would be heading to 14% and could have been worse if fear of these job losses drives down consumer spending.

Somewhat less obvious is the realisation that the recovery will be protracted. It will be late Summer 2022 before the economy is back to peak levels and more importantly, the prognosis now is we never get back the two and half years of lost growth. This economic cost will translate into lost wages from the downward pressure of unemployment and low productivity growth as businesses are not investing (see the useful Resolution Foundation report on the Autumn Statement). What has not been highlighted enough is that we are not all in this together. This pain will only fall on those below retirement age. The triple lock on the state pension and more importantly DB occupational pensions being linked to inflation (in most cases the generous RPI measure) means little change in current pensioner incomes from the virus. Only those reliant on earnings now will suffer, but of course, when those aged 50 or less reach retirement their pension pots will have been reduced from less being put in. The under 50s will lose out twice over.


The job preservation strategy behind the furlough scheme has massive value but also limitations which will be increasingly obvious and unjust on those not in work. We are putting huge amounts of resources into holding jobs open but next to nothing to help those who fall out of work.
This is being made clear by the last labour market data and will be even more so by the next instalment. Mass job losses are being stemmed by furlough but there is a moderate but steady decline in employment. Jobs are seeping rather than flooding out of the economy. Over ½ million fewer working-age people were in work in September than in February – that’s one and a half percent of all employment or 70,000 a month. Redundancy levels suggest things are accelerating. January to March 2020 saw 30,000 redundancies a month, April to June 44,000, July to September 100,000. The rapid increases for 3-month averages that have occurred every month suggest that September alone saw around 150,000 redundancies as the generosity of furlough was reduced.

But the rise in unemployment is being driven as much by the inability of those losing work to get back into employment. Vacancies fell to 40% of pre-Covid levels in Lockdown 1 but recovered to a bit under 70% before we closed much of the economy again. Lockdown 2 and tight restrictions that follow will mean low vacancy levels through till April. This combination of job loss and especially restricted re-entry always hurts the young most. Of the ½ million falls in employment more than half (270,000) comes from 16-24-year-olds. But large numbers have elected to stay in education as a result of fewer job opportunities, pegging the increase in the unemployment rate to 3% (for 35-64 it is up 0.4%). 270k fewer in work but only an extra 100k unemployed. The youth are doing the sensible thing and have been supported in this by the government and universities, but this trend won’t continue as most courses have started now.
But the deeper point is that the vast bulk of government efforts are on job preservation in struggling industries not new jobs in the rest of the economy- saving jobs for those in work but the little drive for new ones for those without. Kickstart, even after the proposed expansion, cannot start fully start with Lockdown 2 or restrictions after December the 2nd. This programme is essentially a hiring subsidy but in a labour market that isn’t hiring. The government has so far rejected the Intermediate Labour Market (ILM) of charities and the public sector that was used under the successful Future Jobs Fund in 2009/10. The new recognition of the protracted downturn means that this needs to be re-examined.

The Autumn Statement had two very small positive announcements around green and northern investment, which with earlier infrastructure announcements brings up the government support for new job creation to around 10% of the total economic supports for the economy (mostly furlough). The imbalance though still remains massive and the result of such little focus on job creation in a protracted recession will rise in long-term unemployment (6+ moths) through until at least April 2021.

Time for the Bank to step up?

The Bank of England is drip-feeding support to the Treasury for managing debt. What we are not having is the conversation about the total envelope that will eventually be made available and what a coherent strategy for its use would look like. What is needed is for them to be asked to fund a serious plan for the investment in green industries and housing etc, not just saving the pubs. And the government needs to have a plan on how to do it. We are still in crisis mode rather than recovery planning. The Bank of England needs to adjust its thinking and urgently – it is them, not the Treasury that is the problem here.

The crunch has been delayed and the government hopes it can keep furlough going till there is a Covid endgame. Meanwhile, we are likely to be shedding 100,000 jobs a month with few ways back in for those without work and no plan for an economic recovery, beyond re-opening pubs.