Covid has raised new barriers for pupils in greatest need

New national attainment data shows the impact of the pandemic on primary school children has not been evenly spread, writes Stephan Nicholls

New national attainment data shows the impact of the pandemic on primary school children has not been evenly spread, writes Stephan Nicholls

29 Mar 2022, 5:00

When the country first locked down, two years ago this week, primary schools were launched into uncharted territory. Despite the extraordinary efforts of heads and teachers during this time of turmoil, many pupils have fallen behind where they should be for their age. Sadly, it’s the most vulnerable children who are bearing the heaviest burden of the pandemic.

New data from more than 6,000 schools including more than 500,000 pupils compares the attainment of primary school children in autumn 2019 – before any of us had heard of Covid-19 – with key points in time up to autumn 2021. It looks at the percentage of pupils who are achieving or exceeding age-related expectations in reading, writing and maths.

This gives us a detailed picture of the attainment journey for pupils who were in primary school at the start of the pandemic, the current Years 3 to 6.

Deeper divides

One of the most shocking findings from the data is the extent of the pandemic’s impact on disadvantaged children. The gaps between disadvantaged pupils and their peers have widened across all the year groups we measured.

In autumn 2019, 68 per cent of disadvantaged children (those who qualify for Pupil Premium) were working at or above age-related expectations in maths, compared with 82 per cent of their peers – an attainment gap of 14 points. By autumn 2021, that gap had grown to a worrying 20 points.

There were similar drops in reading and writing attainment for disadvantaged children, with the year 3s, who were in year 1 at the start of the pandemic, falling furthest behind their classmates in the three core subjects.

The pandemic has affected the lives of the less fortunate in so many ways. This data exposes the damage done by Covid to children from underprivileged backgrounds who already had mountains to climb.

New obstacles

There is also stark evidence of the impact on children with special educational needs. Faced with repeated waves of staff and pupil absence, it has been challenging to maintain pre-pandemic levels of SEND support.

The data confirms that the attainment of primary school pupils with an identified SEND has fallen significantly compared with 2019 levels. In autumn 2019, 42 per cent of children with identified SEND were working at or above age-related expectations in reading. That figure dropped to 33 per cent in autumn 2021. The corresponding drops were from 35 to 22 per cent for writing, and from 45 down to 34 per cent for maths.

The youngest children with SEND are the worst affected. In autumn 2019, the current year 3 pupils with SEND were 29 percentage points behind their peers in reading attainment. By 2021 the gap had widened to 45 points.

Uneven recovery

The youngest children in all pupil categories suffered steeper drops in learning than their older peers. Nearly one in three year 3 children has not met age-related expectations in reading, writing or maths compared with just one in five before the pandemic. And not only has year 3 attainment fallen furthest, but it is yet to show signs of recovery.

However, there was a slight uplift in attainment for years 4 and 5 by autumn 2021, and even stronger indications of recovery for year 6 pupils who had the chance to build firmer learning foundations prior to the pandemic.  

The data in our report tells the story of how the greatest public health crisis of our age has created deeper divisions between children from different backgrounds and circumstances. It also shows how the pandemic is making it harder for younger children to make up lost ground.

But there are rays of hope. Since that first lockdown, schools have become skilled at adapting to the unexpected and supporting pupils’ wellbeing and learning through uncertain times. And thanks to their efforts, some pupil groups have taken their first steps on the road to recovery.

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