Much of the progress made in reducing the attainment gap for disadvantaged children over the past decade could have been eradicated during the pandemic, new government-commissioned research has found.
The studies, published on Friday by the Department for Education (DfE), also show significant regional disparities in the impact of the disruption to schooling caused by Covid, with pupils in some parts of northern England losing twice as much learning over the same periods as those in London.
It prompted renewed calls from teaching unions for more investment in catch-up efforts, two days after the government’s education recovery chief, Sir Kevan Collins, resigned in protest at what he called “half-hearted” ministerial plans.
The research was carried out by the Education Policy Institute (EPI) thinktank in English primary and secondary schools during the autumn term of last year, and spring 2021, using the metric of months of attainment lost for reading and maths.
While it found that overall attainment suffered notably during both periods when the bulk of pupils were learning from home, with some recovery when students returned last autumn, the effect was magnified because of disadvantage and location.
By October in last autumn’s term, average learning losses for primary students were 3.7 months for maths, and 1.8 months for reading. But for disadvantaged pupils, the average was 4.3 months of maths and two months for reading. A similar effect was found for secondary students.
While the most recent data for learning loss among disadvantaged children, gauged in March, has not yet been published, the report’s authors said there were signs of a growing gap. Overall, they said, it appeared to have undone between a third and two-thirds of all progress made in the past decade.
There were also notable regional differences, although the researchers urged some caution on these due to smaller sample sizes.
One set of data found that in last year’s autumn term, primary children overall had lost 1.3 months of reading attainment in London and 1.5 months in the south-west of England, but 2.3 months in the north-east and 2.6 months in Yorkshire and the Humber.
Jon Andrews, head of analysis at the EPI, who co-authored the research, said it had uncovered “a clear penalty faced by disadvantaged pupils during the pandemic”, which risked widening the overall gap in educational attainment, and significant regional disparities.
“We need to continue to look at how we can support all pupils through effective catch-up programmes, but especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds, whose education has seen the most damage from the pandemic.” he said. “It is also important that policies address the large losses seen in certain parts of the country.”
The same point was made by teaching unions, who were highly critical of the DfE’s catch-up plan, announced on Wednesday, which provided funding for extra tuition and other measures – but, at £1.4bn, was about a 10th of what Collins had proposed in his plan.
Paul Whiteman, general secretary the NAHT, which represents school leaders, said that while there was the “silver lining” in the report of learning loss being reduced when pupils were fully in school last autumn, the research showed the need for an ambitious recovery package.
He said: “It is becoming increasingly clear that disadvantaged pupils have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic, and we are starting to see regional disparities too. That’s why the government’s failure to back its own catch-up tsar’s plans for support this week was such a disappointment.”
Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said: “It is abundantly clear that a recovery programme is urgently required at a scale and scope to address this massive issue.
“Instead, we have seen this week a package of measures from the government that is lacking in ambition, inadequately funded and which has caused the education recovery commissioner to resign in protest.”