As the pandemic continues to cause disruption, teachers will be acutely aware of the learning gaps that exist among their own pupils, even after months of concerted efforts to mitigate the impact of being away from the classroom. Now, thanks to new research, we also have detailed data from the recent 2021 summer term to help further inform those efforts.
The research, carried out by Renaissance and the Education Policy Institute (EPI) for the Department for Education, uses Renaissance’s Star Assessments to create the largest sample size of its kind available in the country.
Our findings provide new evidence on the impact of the pandemic on pupils’ school attainment at both a national and regional level, in primary and secondary schools, and by pupil characteristics, including among pupils from different socioeconomic backgrounds.
What we found is that, despite a degree of recovery after schools fully reopened in March, pupils in England have still suffered substantial losses – particularly disadvantaged pupils and those in deprived areas.
In the summer, primary pupils were on average two (2.2) months behind where we would have expected them to be in maths had the pandemic not happened, and one (0.9) month behind in their reading. For primary pupils on free school meals, these losses rise to 2.6 and 1.2 months.
But it’s disadvantaged pupils in secondary schools who have been hardest hit. These pupils had actually fallen further behind in their reading over the academic year, with losses totalling 2.4 months by the 2021 summer term, compared to 1.9 months at the start of the academic year.
These gaps are a huge concern, but even more so when you consider that, prior to the pandemic, disadvantaged pupils were already many months behind their peers, even at primary. The pandemic has now inflicted a ‘double-disadvantage’ on the poorest, setting back years of progress in narrowing inequalities.
For the very first time, we’ve also explored the link between pupil absence (despite schools being open for in-person learning) and higher learning losses. In the 2021 spring term, we found schools with a low level of absence saw average losses reach around 3.2 months in primary maths, compared to 4.7 months for schools with a high level of pupil absence. This association between absence and outcomes could have significant implications for schools and pupils as they continue to respond to ongoing disruption.
The report also reveals substantial disparities in learning losses at a regional level, with those in parts of the north and the Midlands seeing greater losses than those in the south. Higher absence rates, digital learning inequalities, and poverty all likely play a role.
All of these findings confirm just how critical a targeted approach to education recovery is; one that sees a greater level of resource directed at those pupils most affected.
EPI has called for education recovery funding to be allocated according to geographic deprivation. This means government should weight funding progressively towards the most deprived areas of England, helping those who have lost out the most and tackling the regional disparity in learning loss.
They also underline the role of real-time assessment and extra resources as we recover from the pandemic’s effects. Reports such as this are invaluable for schools wishing to benchmark their current performance against the national experience. Being able to compare current assessments against historical averages from before and during the pandemic will allow leaders to identify areas of strength and weakness.
Of particular interest will be the ability to contextualise groups of interest, for example Free School Meals, against the benchmarks for these groups. To help support this, Renaissance has published a guide to formative assessment and made freely available practical workbooks that show the Focus Skills for reading and maths at each year level.
If there is one major lesson from the research it is that the impact of Covid has not been uniform across the country. These findings give an insight into those areas most affected and can provide school leaders with indications of where to concentrate resources, so that they can chart a course towards narrowing learning gaps and getting all pupils back on track.