Chief Executive’s Letter: Covid-19 has created the test of a generation

It was by no means plain sailing, but the last decade saw notable gains for disadvantaged pupils’ educational achievement. Between 2011 and 2019, the attainment gap between disadvantaged pupils and their classmates narrowed in both primary and secondary schools.

This progress was testament to the enormous efforts of teachers and school leaders across England, as well as policies such as the Pupil Premium, which provided funding and focus. But 2020 has brought with it new and major challenges for continuing that progress.

Today the Education Endowment Foundation is publishing our analysis of the implications of Covid-19 closures for the attainment gap. We are projecting the attainment gap will widen significantly, likely reversing the past decade's progress.

Our analysis – based on a systematic search of literature on school closures – suggests that the gap at the end of primary school could widen by between 11% and 75% between March and September.

This analysis, of course, comes with caveats. Schools closures due to Covid-19 are different in many ways from closures over the summer – the focus of almost all of the highest quality studies our research looks at.

Some of these differences might lead us to be more optimistic about the impact of closures this year – for example, because of the considerable efforts to support home learning undertaken by schools and parents.

However, other differences might imply that our projections are conservative, particularly when we focus on the gap. Surveys of teachers and parents by the Sutton Trust and IFS have highlighted that those from poorer backgrounds appear to be missing out most. Disadvantaged pupils are less likely to have good online access, spend less time on home learning, and are less likely to have sufficient resources at home or parents who can assist them in their school work.

Support resources for schools

Support resources for schools

Tools for schools to help support home learning and maximise the impact of work set.

Taken together, the prior literature on school closures and the growing evidence about the experience of socially disadvantaged families during lockdown conveys a clear message: for the attainment gap, the 2020s could not have got off to a worse start.

But there is another – positive – caveat to insert. Whatever the impact school closures have had on widening the attainment gap, and whatever the adversity experienced by each child, what matters now is how we respond.

To have a chance of succeeding, our reaction must be collaborative, intelligent and sustained. 

1. Collaborative

The responsibility for Covid catch-up cannot fall on teachers and school leaders alone. We must respond as a system and a society, using every available resource.

Today, alongside our gap projections, the EEF is launching a programme of online tuition pilots, developed in partnership with three other charities, Impetus, Nesta and the Sutton Trust, and with the support of the Wellcome Trust.

Extensive evidence from our Teaching and Learning Toolkit suggests that tuition is a particularly promising catch-up strategy and the pilots aim to identify whether – when guided by teachers – tutors can help disadvantaged children learn at home.

The initiative will support some 1,600 pupils over the coming weeks, focused in particular on pupils who will not return to school until the autumn. 

Support resources to share with parents

Support resources to share with parents

Resources to share with parents on how to support home routines.

2. Intelligent

One acute risk relates to the educational impact of pupil absence as schools re-open for more children.

School closures so far have almost certainly widened the gap. But there is a danger that the situation gets much worse if children from disadvantaged families return to school more slowly than their peers, which the IFS has indicated is likely and as has happened in some other European countries that have already re-opened schools.

This is not an argument for re-opening schools more quickly, but an argument for re-opening in a way that means as many families as possible send their children back. The most damaging scenario would be one in which support for remote learning is removed with some children still at home.

3. Sustained

Compensating for the negative impact of school closures on the gap will require a sustained response.

Calls for immediate action, from summer schools to extended hours in the autumn term, are clearly well-motivated, and some of these strategies may help. But it is highly unlikely that a single approach will be enough.

Covid-19 will have affected every family and school in different ways, and the strains of lockdown will have created new barriers to learning for both teachers and children. This reinforces the need to act with intelligence and in partnership, drawing on all of our system’s strengths.

In time, it might be possible to identify positive consequences of Covid-19 for schools. The extraordinary ways in which teachers have supported children and families at home have been deeply impressive. Our research could hardly show the importance of schools more clearly.

But for now, it is unhelpful to downplay the challenge we face. The educational impact of school closures is likely to be severe. What matters most now is that we are confident, concerted and evidence-driven in our approach to helping every pupil bounce back.

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* This article was published in Tes under the headline, 'The disadvantage gap has grown - here's how we fix it'.