School closures or not, a second wave of lost learning is already upon us

7 Nov 2020, 5:00


The latest data shows the most disadvantaged pupils were more likely to have missed the most school this term, writes Luke Sibieta

Passionate views have been put forward over the past few days about whether schools should remain open, and it is almost certain that arguments will only intensify as the national lockdown comes into effect today. For the time being at least, schools are required to, and given the extent of lost learning that has already taken place this year, this is the right thing to do – as long as government and schools are confident the right safety precautions are in place.

But regardless of what transpires in the bumpy weeks ahead, it’s important to appreciate just how many pupils are already out of the classroom. Recent research from the Education Policy Institute, funded by the Nuffield Foundation, found that in England just before half-term, just 87 per cent of pupils were attending school. In other words, since schools reopened in September, hundreds of thousands of pupils have already missed school because of the re-emergence of the pandemic.

The most disadvantaged pupils were more likely to have missed the most school this term

The latest attendance data relate to the week before half-term and we won’t get the newest figures until next week, but there’s a strong possibility that rates could plunge even further, with school attendance rates likely to be in lockstep with the virus as it continues to proliferate.

Worse, the headline figure also masks a huge amount of variation that presents policy makers with substantial challenges. Worrying divides are apparent between age groups, socioeconomic groups and different parts of the country.

We can see that older age groups are more likely to be absent from school. We can also see that in areas that have been most severely affected by the pandemic, such as Knowsley, on Merseyside, only 61 per cent of secondary pupils were able to attend. In sharp contrast, attendance was as high as 94 per cent in Kensington and Chelsea.

However, what sticks out most from the latest data is that it’s the most disadvantaged pupils who were more likely to have missed the most school this term. In Scotland, pupils living in areas of high deprivation are more likely to have low attendance levels, and there is emerging evidence in other parts of the UK of the same link.

This is a big concern. We don’t know what will happen with schools over the next few weeks, but what is very clear is that among the large number of pupils who have already been absent this term, the poorest are disproportionately represented. And that’s on top of the lost learning time from the first lockdown.

The evidence suggests that – school closures or not – periods of home learning are already a reality and that we urgently need to give extra support to the poorest pupils to cope with this second wave of lost learning.

This requires government to do better on allocating learning resources to the most disadvantaged, including through its wider catch-up support. The £350 million National Tutoring Programme for schools is targeted at disadvantaged pupils, but the wider £650 million catch-up fund – which allocates the same amount of funding to a pupil in an affluent area as it does to a pupil in a poorer one – is badly targeted.

What’s also notable in the data is how England compares to other UK nations. It has performed slightly better than Wales, where 85 per cent of pupils were in school, but has been far less successful than Scotland and Northern Ireland, which saw attendance rates of over 90 and 93 per cent respectively in October.

This suggests there is much to be learnt from Scotland and Northern Ireland’s approach to attendance, and it will be interesting to see how the different parts of the UK diverge on their school policies; especially given the different paths taken on national coronavirus restrictions.

The only real certainty is that further uncertainty lies ahead for schools. As we step into another national lockdown, the government must do everything in its power to support them through the coming weeks and months – or risk seeing yet another wave of lost learning, and an even more unequal one at that.

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