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Expert opinion from academics at the UCL Institute of Education


A Covid generation: who are the winners and losers of a disrupted school year?

By Blog Editor, IOE Digital, on 7 January 2021

PIRO4D / Pixabay

Melanie Ehren, Martijn Meeter and Anne Fleur Kortekaas.

The term ‘Covid generation’ has become the new buzz word to refer to children and adolescents under 20 who are affected by school closures and other disruptions.

A report by UNICEF estimates that globally, more than 570 million students – 33 per cent of all enrolled students worldwide –were affected by country-wide school closures in 30 nations as of November 2020. They will have had varying access to remote and online teaching during these closures, and many students from disadvantaged backgrounds will have had little to no learning.

Some believe the lost learning of this generation will have a detrimental effect on the rest of their school and employment careers. This phenomenon is called the ‘Matthew effect’, after the Evangelist’s saying that “For whoever has, to him shall be given […] but whoever has not, from him shall be taken away even that he has”: disadvantage will accumulate, as students who are left behind become even further behind as time goes by.

Others, however, argue that we will not have a lost ‘C0vid generation’. They give the counter example of disruptions to the education system in France in 1968. That year, student strikes and school-leaving exam cancellations led to a highly successful generation. The lowering of thresholds at critical stages of the education system enabled a proportion of students to pursue more years of higher education than they could have done before the disruption.

For those on the margin of passing their exams, additional years of HE increased future wages and occupational levels. The positive effect was transmitted across generations and is reflected in the educational performance of the children of the 1968 generation.

Clearly, not all student groups will be affected in this way: the pandemic will have ‘educational winners and losers’. This leads us to the question:

Will there be a ‘Covid generation’? And which groups will be most affected?

Learning loss for students from disadvantaged backgrounds

To understand how various student groups are affected, we need to take a closer look at the consequences of these disruptions and how they vary across school systems and phases.

Here we take the example of the Netherlands, where a study from Oxford university indicates that the eight-week closures of primary schools from mid-March to mid-May resulted in an average learning loss equivalent to a fifth of a school year – nearly exactly the same amount of time that schools remained closed. The study also finds that losses are up to 55% larger among students from less-educated homes.

Interestingly, learning loss does not vary according to previous levels of achievement: low performing students did not suffer more loss due to school closures than high performing students. Parents with lower educational backgrounds especially struggled to support their children with home schooling, particularly in secondary education. Although both groups equally valued schoolwork, 40% of parents with a low educational background said they felt unable to home-school their children, while 75% of the more educated group did not experience any issues. Differences also reflect the infrastructure of the home (ie place to study, laptop).

Thus, there might not be an overarching Covid generation, but a specific problem concentrated in those students whose parents are less well-educated, and who haven’t been able to continue learning at home. They will now continue to struggle to catch up – particularly if they are in a school with more affluent peers and where teachers have been unable to close these extensive performance gaps.

Recognising this unfortunate effect of the pandemic, the Dutch government has set up a national funding scheme for catch-up programmes for such students. Similar schemes are being implemented in other countries, such as the national tutoring programme and catch-up premium in the UK. If these programmes are successful and schools make purposeful and evidence-informed decisions, then perhaps we won’t see increasing inequality and achievement gaps and a lost generation.

A lost generation: students in Year 1 of secondary education in 2020-2021?

The school closures in 2019-2020 also meant that standardised exams were cancelled, with further changes or cancellations announced for 2020-2021. In the Netherlands, students are tracked in different secondary school types according to ability level, where only the highest track will get you access to a university. Getting into a higher secondary school type is thus a defining point in children’s life*.

In a normal school year, students are placed into secondary school types on the basis of their primary school teacher’s advice. This can be adjusted upwards (never downwards) on the basis of a national standardised test. Estimates from the national planning bureau (CPB) suggest that this year, 14,000 pupils were placed in a lower track than they would have been if they’d been able to sit the national exam. This group represents 8% of all pupils – two to three students per class in a secondary school – and includes an over-representation of students with parents with low levels of education.

These students may become the lost Covid generation, unless schools are flexible in allowing them to move upwards. The Minister of Education has sent out a letter to secondary schools, asking them to implement a range of formative assessments in year 1 to target these students; the next step needs to include transition arrangements to enable them to move upwards.

The winners: 2019-2020 secondary school-leavers going to university

The cancellation of standardized secondary school exams has, on the contrary, had a more positive effect for students in the Netherlands who entered university this academic year, as final grades were only informed by school-based assessments.

Estimates by the National Bureau for Economic Policy (CPB) suggest that 8% of secondary students would have received a different outcome if they had sat the exam. To mitigate negative consequences and to give everyone a fair chance to pass, the Dutch Ministry of Education offered all students additional resits of their school-based assessments in up to three subjects. This resulted in an overall pass rate above 98%, with a mere 25% of the fail rates of preceding years in all school tracks, as the below figure shows.

Source: CPB (2020)

Students who graduated from secondary education in 2019-2020 are thus likely to have more opportunities than previous cohorts and have similar higher levels of educational returns as the famous ‘angry French students’ who protested during the baccalauréat exam in 1968. They seem to be the clear ‘educational winners’ in this pandemic.

Where next?

Unfortunately, disruptions are not yet over, as we enter a new lockdown in the UK and exams have again been cancelled. We do not yet know how this will affect students in the transition years from primary to secondary, and from secondary school to FE, HE or the labour market, but a continuation of the mechanisms we have described are likely.

Catch-up programmes may mitigate some of the damage, but their implementation will likely also be impacted by disruptions to regular schooling. Some schools may be able to put in place necessary contingency plans to continue schooling for all learners and enable those from poor backgrounds to catch-up. But as they will have to rely on parental support for home-schooling and learning during these disrupted times, it is unlikely that they can do this on their own.

Sustainable change for the future will need ongoing investment, particularly for disadvantaged students. We will need state-funded programmes such as tutoring, parental support in helping students with homework and home-learning and, in The Netherlands, more structured arrangements to allow students to move up to a higher secondary school type.


*Relevant to note here is that an amendment to legislation was passed in June 2020 to allow easier transition to higher school types when they have met a set of additional requirements (e.g. completion of an additional course); however, schools still have leeway in implementing these measures and external accountability targets would incentive them not to admit students from lower tracks: https://www.vo-raad.nl/nieuws/amvb-doorstroomrecht-vmbo-havo-en-havo-vwo-gepubliceerd

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