Younger pupils remain ‘three months behind in reading’ amid pandemic – study

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Younger pupils are around three months behind where they should be in reading due to the pandemic, a study suggests.

Researchers say more efforts will be needed to support reading development after a report found little progress in closing the Covid-19 reading attainment gap for Year 1 pupils from spring to summer 2021.

Despite schools being fully open in the summer term, children had not recovered all the learning lost during 2020 and 2021, research from the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) charity has found.

The report concludes: “By the end of the summer term, Year 1 children remained three months behind where we would expect them to be in reading, with no improvement since the spring.”

But the study suggests there was some education recovery in maths, as Year 1 pupils were only one month behind expectations by summer 2021 compared to three months behind in spring 2021.

For Year 2 pupils, the Covid gap in reading and maths was three and two months respectively in the spring term this year – when schools closed their doors to the majority of pupils as a result of the pandemic.

The report found that Year 2 pupils were still two months behind in reading by the summer term of 2021, but they had recovered to above expected standards in maths.

The study, by the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER), looks at data from reading and maths assessments taken by more than 10,000 Key Stage 1 pupils (five to seven-year-olds) from 168 primary schools in England in the autumn term of 2020 and the spring and summer terms of 2021.

Their attainment was compared with that of a representative sample of Year 1 and 2 children prior to the pandemic to give estimates of the “Covid gap”.

The research also looks at the impact of the pandemic on the attainment gap between disadvantaged pupils and their classmates.

The disadvantage gap for both reading and maths, in both year groups, was around seven months’ progress in the spring of 2021 – and it is wider than pre-pandemic levels (approximately six months).

Researchers suggest that education recovery support should be targeted at disadvantaged pupils as they have been the worst affected by school closures.

Professor Becky Francis, chief executive of the EEF, said “continued efforts” are needed to support education recovery in schools.

She said: “Important work is already being done in schools to ensure that children’s progress is brought back on track and their wellbeing is restored in the wake of the pandemic.

“There are signs that this is already paying off, particularly in maths.

“However, schools need ongoing access to resources and capacity which will allow them to perform at their best, and to ensure that pupils surpass ‘recovery’ and achieve the full extent of their potential.”

Dr Ben Styles, head of classroom practice and workforce at NFER, said: “Our research illustrates the challenges faced by pupils, particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds, over the last 20 months. We are, however, now seeing the first encouraging signs of recovery – especially in maths.

“Significant and sustained investment will be required to enable children to fully recover – both in academic terms and in terms of their wellbeing and mental health, and we will continue to monitor the government’s commitment to deliver on its recovery pledge”.

The Government announced in its Budget that 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.

Paul Whiteman, general secretary of school leaders’ union NAHT, said: “This report shows the scale of the challenge in helping children recover lost learning during the pandemic.

“The good news is that it shows strong progress made by educators once children returned to schools in the 2021 summer term.

“Educators know what they are doing, and it is important that schools are allowed to focus on the strategies and programmes they know work best for the children in their schools.

“But schools are still suffering from huge disruption, with high levels of Covid-related absence for both pupils and staff. This needs to be recognised and more needs to be done to help bring the situation under control to allow schools to concentrate on the excellent recovery work they are doing.”

A Department for Education spokeswoman said: “As the Government’s ambitious education recovery plan continues to roll out, it is encouraging to see further evidence of the progress being made by children in primary school.

“It’s also clear there is more to do, which is why we are investing almost £5bn to support our tutoring programme, deliver world-class training for teachers and early years practitioners, increase support for early language development, provide additional funding to schools, and to extend time in colleges by 40 hours a year.

“This unprecedented support will help children and young people to make up for learning lost and get back on track.”

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