Coronavirus: Attainment gap could widen by 75%, DfE official warns

The attainment gap between disadvantaged children and their better-off peers could widen by as much as 75 per cent because of the coronavirus outbreak, a senior Department for Education official has warned.

Vicki Stewart, the deputy director of the DfE’s pupil premium and school food division, told a Westminster Education Forum event on Wednesday that the pandemic and the resulting partial school closures would “almost certainly” have “a very significant impact” on the attainment gap.

We are all working very hard to think about what actions we can take to support schools in mitigating against the widening of that gap

“The predictions are stark – up to a 75 per cent widening,” she said. “We are all working very hard to think about what actions we can take to support schools in mitigating against the widening of that gap, and how, in the slightly medium longer-term, we can support schools as part of their recovery phase to narrow that gap.”

Her warning followed calls from senior MPs, led by Robert Halfon, the chair of the education select committee, for a catch-up premium to pay tutors to help to bridge the growing gap.

Schools have been closed since March 20 to all but the most vulnerable pupils and the children of key workers.

The latest data shows that just 14 per cent of vulnerable children attended school last week and that most looked-after children and those with education, health and care plans were also not attending.

And a recent YouGov poll found 51 per cent of teachers had pupils who had “dropped out of education altogether” during lockdown, while more than 70 per cent said coronavirus would cause moderate or mild harm to their pupils’ education.

Schools Week revealed last week that four charities – the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF), Sutton Trust, Impetus and Nesta – had been in talks with the government over plans for a national tutoring pilot.

On Monday, Boris Johnson appeared to confirm ministers’ involvement, telling MPs the government was “working with the EEF and other partners to see what we can do to support the most disadvantaged and vulnerable children”.

Javed Khan, the chief executive of the Barnardo’s children’s charity, said schools would face a “huge spike in demand” for support from “hidden children” who had become vulnerable as a result of the coronavirus crisis.

“The impact of the isolation that they are living with, the mental health issues that they are now facing that they weren’t before . . . they are not being contacted because they were not in the system before this began.”