The cost of lockdown: attainment gap widens by up to 52% for primary pupils

The attainment gap between primary pupils has widened by up 52 per cent during school closures, the first data published on lockdown learning losses has suggested.

A new study by the Data Evaluation and Learning for Viral Epidemics (DELVE) group, which advises government scientists, has revealed for the first time the impact of lockdown on pupils’ attainment.

It includes a study showing the achievement gap between the top and lowest-performing pupils in year 3 widened by 52 per cent after lockdown.

Shutting down schools has impacted all children but the worst effects will be felt by those from lower socio-economic groups

The report also warns of the potential impact on the 13 year groups affected by lockdown should action not be taken.

Researchers estimate that around a quarter of the entire workforce could have lower skills for 50 years following the mid-2030s. This could reduce their earnings potential by three per cent a year and lower the overall economic growth rate, the report found.

Professor Simon Burgess, professor of economics at the University of Bristol and a lead author on the report, said: “We know how damaging it is for children to miss out on school. The amount of school already missed due to the pandemic could impact on their earning potential by around 3% a year throughout their lives and impact on productivity in the UK for decades.”

The report, titled Balancing the risks of pupils returning to schools, calls for keeping schools open to be the “default policy” of government.

The group, made up of researchers brought together by the Royal Society, has put forward detailed proposals for how this could work, including a local coronavirus alert system for schools (read the full proposals here).

Younger pupils most affected by lockdown learning loss

But the findings on the learning already lost because of the closures makes for sobering reading.

An analysis of thousands of pupils’ scores on Star reading and understanding tests, completed via online learning platform Renaissance Learning, before and after lockdown suggest primary pupils have been worst hit.

For year 3 pupils, the gap between the score of the pupil at the 25th percentile and the pupil at the 75th percentile rose from 190 points to 290 points (52 per cent).

At year 5, the rise was 39 per cent. The impact for secondary pupils wasn’t as drastic, but the achievement gap among pupils in both year 7 and 9 still grew by 13 per cent.

The study only included tests results for pupils who took one or two tests both pre and post-lockdown. There were 2,000 pupils’ scores in the year 3 analysis, 3,900 pupils in year 5, over 24,000 in year 7 and 8,600 in year 9.

The report concluded the outlook “fits well with the increased inequality seen in learning inputs over the lockdown period, and is concerning for the future learning outcomes for these cohorts and their life chances beyond education”.

Most pupils have lost around 12 weeks of face-to-face learning because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Professor Anna Vignoles from the University of Cambridge, who also led on the report, added: “Shutting down schools has impacted all children but the worst effects will be felt by those from lower socio-economic groups and with other vulnerabilities, such as a pre-existing mental health condition.

“Children from low income households in particular are more likely to lack the resources (space, equipment, home support) to engage fully with remote schooling… This has to be taken into account in how we come out of this pandemic.”

School surveillance study ‘wont be conclusive’

But the report highlighted a lack of data hindering understanding of the risks posed by coronavirus, adding a system should be put in place to provide regional decision-makers with local and timely data to monitor neighbourhood and school infection rates.

However the report states the government’s Surveillance in KIDs (sKID) programme, run by Public Health England, won’t be able to conclusively show the difference in risk of attending school as the sample size is too low given the current prevalence of the virus in the UK.

The study aims to test staff and pupils at 100 schools this summer.

The report said responsive testing and detailed case study analysis of test results from schools which have experienced an infection may be a more feasible approach to understanding transmission in schools.

They also call for lessons to learnt from what other countries are doing, adding that, in general, the opening of schools has not resulted in a “notable rises in infection at a national level”.


New September tests needed to measure learning loss

The report also called for new tests to be taken in September and at the end of the year to measure the “scale of the learning loss from school lockdown”.

But the report adds: “The burden on schools now and more so in September will be large, so we also recommend that these tests be carried out on an anonymous sample of schools, rather than be universal.”

They say around 150 schools per secondary age group and 600 schools per primary age group would be required.

A Department for Education spokesperson said: “Nothing can replace being in the classroom, which is why we have published guidance to ensure all children can return to school in September.”

They added extra cash from the £1 billion covid catch-up fund will “help all children to make up the impact lost time in school has had on their education”.

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  1. Actually, rather than scaremongering, let’s wait until the actual teachers – those highly qualified and fully trained professionals – assess the children upon the children’s return in September?

  2. Janet Downs

    On 16 May, a DfE official estimated the attainment gap would likely widen by 75% (see Schools Week 6/5/20). A projected rise of 52% would appear to be an improvement on that dire prognosis.

    The gap at the end of Key Stage 2 is currently 2.91 according to DfE data (link below). A rise of 52% would increase the gap to 4.42. The gap is, of course, based on tests with no educational value.

    I would be wary of projections about future wage-earning capacity based on this gap. The pandemic has caused us to reassess the value to society of certain jobs including those traditionally low-paid (eg care workers, refuse collectors, those working in food processing). Perhaps we need a recalibration of pay according to, say, key worker status. Or perhaps consider the radical idea of a universal basic wage. This would replace existing benefits (and attendant bureaucracy) and ensure every person had a basic income. It would also put in place a system which could withstand future pandemic shocks.

  3. Jen Persson

    Re: “ On 16 May, a DfE official estimated the attainment gap would likely widen by 75% (see Schools Week 6/5/20)” — you’re right but consider an alternative reason, is that 75% was a made up number.

    • Mark Watson

      Of course it was a made up number. It’s called making an estimate about the future without any good data being available. In fact, if you look at the Schools Week article what the DfE official actually said was “The predictions are stark – up to a 75 per cent widening”.

      So she didn’t say “the attainment gap would likely widen by 75%” as claimed by Janet, because she was reporting how some predictions went up to 75%. What she was presumably doing was recognising and confirming the potentially massive impact Coronavirus and school shutdown could have on attainment.

      Don’t let this stop you though.

      • Janet Downs

        Apologies – I should have written ‘up to 75%” and ‘up to 52%’. Thank you for bring my carelessness to my notice. But why the snide comment at the end?