Blog Post

School pupils are not exempt from the disproportionate impacts of coronavirus

Despite the rhetoric that ‘we’re all in this together’, some groups have been suffering more during the pandemic.

Evidence shows that people from ethnic minorities are more likely to die from COVID-19, while those in low paid, manual jobs are more likely to die than higher paid, white collar workers. And while severe cases of COVID-19 illness in children are rare, school pupils are not exempt from the disproportionate impacts of the virus.

While schools have sought to support home learning and some primary schools have now reopened for children in Reception, Years 1 and 6, many school pupils are still struggling with the ‘new normal’; none more so than those from disadvantaged backgrounds. These children are more likely to face a range of challenges to studying at home – from access to the right equipment and space for learning, to parents having the time and confidence to deliver home schooling.

Research from the Sutton Trust among parents and teachers across the UK shows that a third of students from middle class families are taking part in daily lessons, compared to just 16 per cent of those from working class families. And a survey of parents conducted by the Institute for Fiscal Studies shows that children from the richest families are spending an additional 75 minutes learning a day compared to the poorest fifth. Experiences of home learning are unequal, and some pupils will be further disadvantaged by school closures.

The lockdown and rise in home schooling seems certain to contribute to the gap in educational achievement between disadvantaged students and their better off classmates (known as the attainment gap). This gap has been slowly closing over the last decade, but progress has stagnated in the last few years. Now, analysis by the Education Endowment Fund predicts that, across the country, these gains could even be reversed during the pandemic.

While this is an unprecedented and evolving situation, we already know that breaks in learning have a negative impact on children. There is an annual learning loss for pupils after the long summer break, which is worse for those from disadvantaged backgrounds: summer holidays may account for almost two thirds of the attainment gap between rich and poor children by the age of 14.

So how does this look in London? London’s education system entered lockdown in a stronger position than some other parts of the country. Over the last decade the city has made significant advances in closing the attainment gap – the capital has one of the highest proportions of disadvantaged students but one of the lowest attainment gaps (even when we account for demographic differences like ethnicity).

But London is by no means insulated from the impact of this crisis. The capital has the highest child poverty rate of any English region (37 per cent) – a rate which has been increasing over the last decade. Alongside this, London has the highest proportion of lone parent families and the largest average family size in the country. This means that a large number of families may be struggling financially, as well as with balancing work, childcare and schooling demands. While some MPs have stressed the impact that COVID-19 will have on the North-South divide in educational achievement, it is clear that London students cannot be discounted from this conversation.

Every child will have lost out on some education over the last three months, but some will have lost out on a lot more than others. A range of measures to address these issues and inequities have been proposed, including improving access to equipment and tuition, as well as running summer schools and increasing the premium that schools receive for disadvantaged pupils. Ultimately, these measures all aim to level the playing field by providing disadvantaged children with some of the additional support that others will have greater access to.

However, there are still challenges in reaching the students who will benefit most from such support. For instance, it will be difficult to reach the most disadvantaged and disengaged students with voluntary summer schools or tuition. Indeed, the challenge goes further than academic learning, and as the Children’s Commissioner for England Anne Longfield noted, many students will be facing losses in their “social, emotional and cognitive skills.”

So, once students return to school, there must be continuous classroom assessment of students and real-time evaluation of the support provided to ensure that the students who need most help are being reached and supported in the most effective ways. There is no time to waste in making up for the deep learning losses created by the COVID-19 pandemic, and a long way to go in reducing the persistent gap in attainment between disadvantaged and non-disadvantaged pupils.


Sara Gariban is a Senior Researcher at Centre for London. Follow her on Twitter. Read more from her here.