Decade of progress in tackling pupil disadvantage ‘wiped out’

Education charity finds coronavirus school closures may have reversed years of work to narrow gap in England

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Last modified on Wed 1 Jul 2020 12.20 EDT

Nearly 10 years of progress in narrowing the attainment gap in England between disadvantaged pupils and their classmates has probably been “wiped in a few months” due to the coronavirus pandemic, a study has found.

Analysis by the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) charity said the closure of schools to most pupils 10 weeks ago was likely to reverse all progress made to close the gap since 2011.

Responding to the findings, Russell Hobby, the chief executive of Teach First, a charity that aims to address educational disadvantage in England and Wales, said urgent action was needed to tackle the problem.

“It’s devastating that children from poorer backgrounds risk having their education interrupted by this pandemic,” he said. “Nearly 10 years of progress in narrowing the gap wiped in a few months is tragic.”

Over the past decade the attainment gap between disadvantaged pupils and their classmates at the end of primary school in England is estimated to have narrowed from 11.5 months in 2009 to 9.2 months in 2019, according to the Education Policy Institute. However, the EEF fears that progress made since 2011 will now be lost.

The EEF analysis, published on Wednesday, said its median estimate was that the attainment gap could widen by 36% but that “plausible estimates” indicated it could widen by between 11% and 75%.

The findings mirror thinking among senior figures in the Department for Education. In May, Vicki Stewart, the deputy director of the DfE’s pupil premium and school food division, said the pandemic would  “almost certainly” have “a very significant impact” on the attainment gap, pointing to predictions of it widening by 75%.

The EEF said urgent and sustained support would be needed to help disadvantaged pupils catch up but that the damage would already have been done “even if the strongest possible mitigatory steps are put in place”.

Schools across the UK were ordered to close on 20 March – more than 10 weeks ago – to all but vulnerable pupils and the children of key workers. Some primary schools in England reopened on Monday to further reception, year one and year six pupils but others have said it remains unsafe to open to additional students.

Hobby said the government must pump more resources and funding towards the schools and pupils “who have suffered the most” to rectify the harm done.

The EEF analysis said it was “highly unlikely” that a single or short-term catch-up strategy would be sufficient to compensate for lost learning.

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The EEF chief executive, Prof Becky Francis, said: “The evidence is clear that children learn less when they are not in school. Our analysis today highlights that this particularly impacts those from disadvantaged backgrounds and widens the attainment gap.”

The EEF, Sutton Trust, Impetus and Nesta have been in talks with the government over plans for a national tutoring pilot.

The charities said on Wednesday they would offer high-quality tuition to up to 1,600 pupils in disadvantaged communities over coming weeks, supporting schools as they opened for more pupils.

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