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Young pupils recovering from Covid learning gap

New research suggests the Covid learning gap suffered by young pupils as a result of the pandemic is starting to narrow.

The difference between reading and maths scores of Year 3 and 4 pupils in the 2022/23 academic year compared to those before Covid is smaller than it was. But the gap between disadvantaged pupils and their peers remains wide.  

The findings are the latest in a series of reports conducted by the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER) tracking the longer-term impact of the pandemic on younger pupils’ reading and maths skills. 

The Covid learning gap is starting to narrow
The Covid learning gap is starting to narrow. Credit: iStock.com

Published and funded by the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF), the research has followed over 6,000 pupils who were in Reception and Year 1 (four- to six-year-olds) in March 2020, with the most recent assessment taking place in the spring term of 2023 with the same pupils, now in Years 3 and 4. 

The study tracks the estimated Covid-19 gap and disadvantage gap over time to gain an understanding of pupils’ attainment relative to where they might expect to be had the pandemic not occurred.

Dr Ben Styles, Head of Classroom Practice and Workforce at NFER said: “It is encouraging that three years on from the first school closures, there are real signs of improvement in both the reading and maths performance of Year 3 and Year 4 pupils. Schools have been working tirelessly following the pandemic to put strategies in place to support pupils’ learning recovery. 

“Our evidence suggests there should be a greater focus on very low attaining pupils and closing the disadvantage gap. It is essential that schools are both adequately funded and supported to do so using evidence-based approaches. This will be required over the long term.”

Covid-19 gap closed for pupils on average in both reading and maths 

The new data shows that in spring 2023 there was no significant difference in Year 3 pupils’ reading and Year 4 pupils’ maths performance, compared to the pre-pandemic pupil samples. 

For reading and maths, in both Years 3 and 4, the Covid gap significantly reduced compared with spring 2021 and spring 2022. 

However, the analysis did show a notable proportion of very low attaining pupils in Year 3 reading, larger than seen before the pandemic (4.9 per cent compared with 2.5 per cent).

Disadvantage gap is shrinking, but it remains wider than before the pandemic

Year 3 and 4 pupils eligible for free school meals were each estimated to be around seven months behind their more well-off peers for reading in spring 2023. These gaps have not decreased since spring 2021 and remain wider than gaps reported before the pandemic. 

Meanwhile, the disadvantage gaps for maths in spring 2023 for each of Year 3 and Year 4 were estimated to be around six months – significantly reduced since spring 2021 but wider than gaps reported before the pandemic.

Schools report support for pupils’ wellbeing is still a priority, particularly for disadvantaged pupils

The research shows that schools have continued with a number of strategies developed during the pandemic, including increased wellbeing support, and provision for home learning which most schools felt they were able to support well.

Schools who reported disruption to learning gave the most common reason as being related to pupils’ behaviour and wellbeing, a much more commonly reported challenge than in previous years of the study. The research also explored pupils’ social skills, behaviour and wellbeing.

It found the social maturity of pupils in 2022/23 was not significantly different to that seen in 2021/22. However, disadvantaged pupils were assessed as having significantly lower social skills than non-disadvantaged pupils.

Three quarters of schools reported that they were prioritising learning recovery support for their disadvantaged pupils, but schools were concerned about the level of funding to support pupils who had missed learning.

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