Learning loss among poorer secondary school pupils grew last year

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Poorer pupils in secondary schools fell further behind with their reading by this summer compared with last autumn, a Government report suggests.

Disadvantaged secondary school pupils in England had lost more than two months of learning in reading by the summer term, which is greater than losses during the autumn term last year.

The report, commissioned by the Department for Education to examine pupils’ progress in 2020/21, found that overall pupil learning losses reduced by around a month by the summer after schools returned to in-person lessons.

But disadvantaged pupils – those eligible for free school meals at some point over the last six years – and students in deprived areas of England still suffered substantial losses, it said.

The study, by the Education Policy Institute (EPI) think tank and Renaissance Learning, found that average learning losses in reading increased among disadvantaged secondary school pupils from 1.9 months during the autumn term in 2020 to 2.4 months during the summer term this year.

Secondary school pupils on average had learning losses in reading of 1.5 months by the autumn term, and the gap closed to 1.2 months by the summer term.

The disparities provide evidence of a widening of the “disadvantage gap” – the difference in attainment between disadvantaged pupils and their peers, the think tank said.

The findings come after the Government announced it would provide an extra £1.8 billion to help children recover learning lost during the pandemic, bringing total catch-up funding so far to £4.9 billion.

Overall, the study found there was “notable catch-up” for primary-aged pupils in reading by the summer, with an average improvement of around 1.3 months from the estimation of learning loss by the spring term.

There was also catch-up for primary pupils in mathematics by the summer term, with an improvement of around 1.2 months.

Pupils in parts of the north of England and the Midlands saw greater learning losses than in other regions, the report found.

By the end of the summer term, average learning losses in maths for primary school pupils ranged from 0.8 months in London to six months in the East Midlands and 4.1 months in the North East.

Researchers also found a link between the level of pupil absence in a school and the extent of learning losses, even when schools were open to all pupils.

Schools with a low level of pupil absence saw average learning losses of around 2.1 months in primary maths in autumn, compared with 3.8 months for schools with a high level of absence.

Researchers said other factors could influence the figures, as absence could be linked to disadvantage, less engagement with school or extenuating medical circumstances.

Jon Andrews, report co-author and head of analysis at the EPI, said: “While average learning losses fluctuated over the academic year, one trend has remained very clear and consistent throughout – pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds and deprived areas have suffered greater losses than their peers.

“For the first time, we have examined the relationship between school absence and learning losses – finding an association between the two. These findings could have significant implications for schools and pupils as they continue to respond to the ongoing disruption caused by the pandemic.

“Supporting all pupils through effective education recovery interventions will remain critical in the months and years ahead. It’s important that we provide extra targeted support to pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds and those living in areas that have seen larger learning losses.”

Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said: “This research provides further evidence of the scale of learning loss experienced by pupils as a result of the Covid pandemic, and in particular the impact on disadvantaged pupils who have clearly suffered the most.

“Government funding for education recovery to help pupils catch up is welcome, including the announcements in Wednesday’s Budget, but does not go far enough in terms of scale or ambition.

“These children have suffered the greatest educational disruption since the Second World War and they need and deserve a far better recovery package.”

A Department for Education (DfE) spokesperson said: “It’s encouraging to see pupils beginning to close the gaps that opened up over the past 18 months, but we know there is still more to do – in particular for disadvantaged pupils.

“That’s why this week we announced a further £1.8 billion dedicated to supporting young people recover from the impact of the pandemic, including a £1 billion recovery fund for schools and more time in education for 16 to 19-year-olds, taking total funding dedicated to young people’s recovery to almost £5 billion.

“This additional investment – on top of the £1.6 billion increase in core funding for schools next year and £4.7 billion total increase up to 2024-25 – builds on the planned delivery of six million tutoring courses and world class training for hundreds of thousands of teachers, and showing the Government’s continued ambition in making sure every young person can get back on track following the disruption of the pandemic.”

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