Exam changes can’t compensate for Covid hit to disadvantaged pupils, says government

Ofqual research shows poorer pupils falling behind during the pandemic.

Changes to next year’s exams cannot compensate for pupils’ divided experiences during the pandemic, the government has said, even as research from its own exams regulator laid bare the disruption to disadvantaged children’s education.

On Monday, Ofqual and the Department for Education published a consultation on measures to “help mitigate the impact of disruption” for pupils sitting exams in 2022, alongside some of the most comprehensive analysis yet of how Covid has affected schooling.

Proposed measures include giving pupils support materials, advance information or choice over topics in certain GCSE, AS and A-level subjects. Ofqual said it will also consider how to grade qualifications in a way that is “fair” to current, past and future pupils.

Warning over 2022 exams

In its equality impact assessment, the government said recovery plans had targeted students most affected by the pandemic, but that it shared wider “concern that attainment gaps between different groups might grow in 2022”.

However, it said changes to exams and other assessments “cannot effectively address the differential impact on students of the disruption as any changes must apply equally to all students taking the assessment”.

The equality impact assessment identified a number of groups whose education “might have been and might continue to be most badly disrupted”.

These included students with caring responsibilities, those with homes “not conducive” to study or without access to technology, SEND pupils, those from Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities, students from black, Asian, and minority ethnic communities, those whose first language is not English and students in “lower socio-economic groups”.

The assessment concluded it had not identified any aspects of its proposed changes to exams that would have a “negative impact on students who share particular protected characteristics”, but asked respondents to the consultation if there were “other potential equality impacts that we have not explored”.

Deprived pupils falling behind

Ofqual this week released five studies rounding up other research on what we know about lost learning during Covid so far.

Its “quantifying lost time” report said evidence from 10 different studies showed disadvantaged primary pupils were “disproportionately behind expectations”.

The research showed primary pupils overall were around a month behind expectations by last autumn, but attainment among the most deprived was disproportionately down for reading, writing, maths.

“The most frequently reported finding in this literature was that socio-economically disadvantaged children were spending less time studying at home than their less disadvantaged peers during the first lockdown,” it said.

A wider “review of research”, looking at 200 studies, found disadvantage and deprivation were more associated with less effective learning than any other factor, including age, region, ethnicity, gender or family size.

It spelled out some of the key factors.


1. Less access to devices and study space

More deprived students “tended to have home environments that were less conducive for remote learning”.

Studies show they were around twice as likely to have little or no access to IT or a space to study in the first lockdown compared to better-off pupils. By May last year, 38 per cent of independent primaries had provided devices, compared to just 1 per cent of state primaries.

Even this year digital access remained a “key concern”, despite the government’s efforts to provide devices. Ofqual blamed “poorer home learning environments and digital access” for lower virtual attendance and submission of work in the spring term.


2. Less teacher engagement

Ofqual said the most deprived students “experienced less teacher feedback and engagement”, reflecting digital access divides and teachers having to deal with the “never-seen-before challenges” during the pandemic.

Paper-based resources were more common in schools with more deprived students, and live online teaching less common even in January despite it being “the closest substitute to in-class learning” and “the most effective…due to the presence of the teacher”.

By March, there were “no significant differences” in live teaching between poorer and better-off schools, however. The government said in April all schools had finally received the devices they needed.


3. Less parental support

Research also suggests divides in parental support, with graduate and high-earning parents reporting greater confidence in home-schooling.

More deprived families  “found it difficult to support their children”.

Ofqual researchers noted middle-income families working from home struggled too, while studies are mixed on whether more educated parents spent any more time on schoolwork.


4. Less access to tutoring

Better-off students were in fact more likely to “benefit from learning resources above what they would usually experience”, according to Ofqual.

One study found the highest-earning parents were more than four times as likely to pay for private tuition than the lowest earners. Those receiving tuition were also more likely to have spent extra time studying.


5. Less curriculum use for vulnerable and key worker children

Differences extended to in-school provision for children of key workers and vulnerable pupils.

During the first lockdown, 58 per cent of senior leaders of schools in more affluent areas said they were teaching the same curriculum. The figure in more deprived areas fell to 35 per cent.

Many leaders said their focus was “providing a place where students were safe and cared for”,  with more deprived areas seeing more extra-curricular activities.


6. More Covid disruption

Ofqual highlighted studies on attendance data, showing areas serving the most deprived communities “had the most interrupted in-school learning time”.

Schools with more limited resources also “would have faced the most challenges in delivering concurrent in-school and online learning”.

It comes amid renewed alarm over the scale of missed education as Covid and self-isolation rates rise, with the latest data showing more than one in 10 pupils was absent because of Covid last week.

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