Disadvantage attainment gap remains wide after pandemic

Research published by the Education Endowment Foundation which tracks the longer-term impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on younger pupils’ reading and maths skills, shows that schools continue to face big challenges supporting socio-economically disadvantaged and low attaining pupils.

The 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.

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.

An additional and significant challenge identified by the 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.

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.

The 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 is asking for 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.

The 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. 

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