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Socio-economic attainment gap remains stubbornly wide after pandemic, with reading skills particularly affected 

EEF publishes findings from longer-term NFER study on the impact of the pandemic on younger pupils’ attainment.

New evidence shows schools continue to face big challenges supporting socio-economically disadvantaged and low attaining pupils because of the COVID-19 pandemic. This is according to a major piece of research published by the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) today, that tracks the longer-term impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on younger pupils’ reading and maths skills.   

The study, by the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER), followed 6,000 pupils who were in Reception and Year 1 (four to six-year-olds) in March 2020 until the spring term of 2022. It investigated how this group of pupils’ attainment and social skills had been affected by disruptions to learning. 

Many children have caught up, but younger pupils still struggling with reading 

Today’s research finds that – on average – pupils who were in Year 3 in spring 2022 (seven and eight-year-olds) have caught up in both reading and maths compared with pupils before the pandemic.   

The picture is more mixed for Year 2 pupils (six and seven-year-olds). While these pupils have also – on average – caught up in maths, they are still behind in their reading by about three months.  

More very low attaining pupils in the typical classroom 

However, for some groups of pupils, learning recovery is proving more challenging. The researchers found an increase in the proportion of very low attaining pupils, particularly for reading.  

For Year 2 pupils, the proportion of very low attainers in reading more than tripled from 2.6 per cent before the pandemic to 9.1 percent in spring 2022. For Year 3 pupils, the proportion more than doubled from 2.5 per cent to 6.5 per cent.   

For maths, the proportion of very low attainment in Year 2 more than doubled from 2.6 per cent before the pandemic to 5.5 per cent in spring 2022. For Year 3 pupils, the increase was less pronounced, rising from 2.5 per cent to 3.9 per cent.

In the typical Year 2 classroom, this means that there will be three very low attaining pupils for reading, compared to one before the pandemic. This creates additional challenges for schools and teachers, particularly those in disadvantaged areas with higher proportions of lower attaining pupils, as they work to provide targeted support for their pupils who are struggling. 

Socio-economic attainment gap is wider than before the pandemic and shows no sign of reducing 

An additional and significant challenge identified by today’s report is that the attainment gap between socio-economically disadvantaged pupils and their peers has widened since before the pandemic and has remained at a similar level since spring 2021.   

In Year 2, the disadvantage gap in spring 2022 was around six months’ progress for reading, and around five months’ progress for maths. For Year 3 pupils, the gap was even wider, at around nine months’ progress for reading and around eight months’ progress for maths. 

Headteachers concerned about their pupils’ wellbeing 

The research also investigated the impact of the pandemic on younger pupils’ social skills and wellbeing. Surveys with headteachers found that they were concerned about Year 2 and Year 3 pupils’ wellbeing, with many introducing interventions to tackle this, adding to teachers’ workload. Two-thirds (66 per cent) of schools surveyed said they were redeploying staff to support social skills and wellbeing, while a slightly smaller proportion (63 per cent) said they were running small-group wellbeing sessions.

Targeted support important for socio-economically disadvantaged pupils, with reading a particular focus 

Today’s report provides yet more evidence that socio-economically disadvantaged pupils have been the worst affected by the partial school closures and highlights the importance of targeting support and funding at this group.   

The EEF would like the government to make sure that – as more pupils become eligible for pupil premium funding – the amount paid per pupil is protected, ideally increasing in real terms.   

Today’s findings also tell us that supporting reading development in younger pupils should continue to be an area of focus. The EEF has a suite of resources to support literacy development in Key Stage 1 and 2 pupils. These include a specialised guidance report complete with eight evidence-informed recommendations to help teachers maximise the impact of their literacy teaching. Relevant strands of the Teaching and Learning Toolkit also provide information around approaches to teaching early reading.   

Professor Becky Francis, CEO of the Education Endowment Foundation, said: 

“Today’s research gives us clear evidence that the efforts of schools and teachers across the country in supporting their pupils learning are paying off. It is encouraging to see that, on average, younger pupils are making good progress.

“However, the findings add to a heavy body of evidence telling us that socio-economic inequality in education – already entrenched before the pandemic – has grown.
Schools are doing – and have done – a lot to mitigate against this, but it would be naïve of us not to recognise that factors outside of the school gate – such a widening poverty – also play a significant part in the widening attainment gap.  

“Tackling education inequality – and the factors behind it – is the biggest challenge our education system faces. But doing so must be a top priority for this government. At the very least, pupil premium funding levels should be protected, ideally increasing in real terms for every eligible pupil.” 
 

Dr Ben Styles, Head of Classroom Practice and Workforce at NFER said: 

“The huge effort from teachers and school leaders appears to be leading to encouraging recovery amongst some of our youngest pupils, but the disadvantage attainment gap remains a real concern. 
“Schools which already face huge challenges are now faced with a large number of very low attaining pupils, particularly in reading, who have suffered most at the hands of the pandemic. It is essential that the National Tutoring Programme is protected from Government cuts and that funds are distributed in a way which directly supports disadvantaged pupils.” 

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