Quarter of English children need a year to catch up on learning lost to Covid

A quarter of parents in England believe their children will need a year or more to catch up on lost learning during the coronavirus pandemic, according to new research published today.

Despite improvements to provision online teaching between the first schools shutdown in spring 2020 and the later closures early this year, some 40 per cent of children did not meet the government’s minimum guidelines for learning time during the 2021 lockdown, found the Institute for Fiscal Studies.

And the resources provided to children self-isolating while their classmates were at school during the autumn of 2020 were even worse than those on offer during lockdown, with only 40 per cent having access to online lessons.

Despite concerns over lost education, the IFS found that the government’s offer of catch-up tutoring is not reaching the pupils who need it most.

Among the poorest fifth of families, who were most likely to lack the computer equipment to access online learning, nearly one in three of those offered tutoring chose not to take it up. This compared with only one in seven from the most affluent households.

The research showed a stark contrast between the teaching offered to pupils stuck at home during the national lockdowns of spring 2020 and spring 2021.

During the first lockdown, children in the poorest fifth of families did nearly eight fewer hours of learning per week than their peers in the richest fifth, found the IFS.

But that disparity vanished during the closures early this year, when study time was similar across all groups.

During the second period of school closures, the richest pupils were 5 percentage points more likely to be offered interactive resources such as online classes than the poorest (89% vs 84%). During the first lockdown, that gap had been 20 percentage points (67% vs 47%). Poorer pupils also benefited from expanded access to in-person schooling during the second period of school closures.

Outside of national school closures, however, provision for students sent home to self-isolate was poor, said the economic thinktank.

Pupils in England missed an average of one in 10 school days during the Autumn 2020 term.

And just 40 per cent of them had access to interactive learning resources such as online classes during the period, compared to 55 per cent in the first lockdown.

While 43 per cent of secondary school pupils in the richest fifth of families had access to online classes while self-isolating, this was available to just 35 per cent of their peers in the most disadvantaged homes.

IFS research economist Adam Salisbury, an author of the report, said: “Thanks to the efforts of teachers, schools, families and policy-makers, the second round of remote learning went far better than the first time around.

“But even with this welcome improvement, many children still struggled with home learning; around four in 10 pupils did not meet the government’s minimum guidelines for learning time during the second round of school closures.

“With this huge hit to children’s learning we have seen so far, it is perhaps unsurprising that a quarter of parents think their child will need a year or more to recover learning lost during the pandemic.”

Co-author Angus Phimister added: “The first lockdown was particularly tough on the schooling of children from disadvantaged backgrounds, who spent around eight fewer hours a week learning than their better-off peers.

“Welcome improvements during the second round of school closures meant that learning experiences looked much more similar. But catch-up policies need to be carefully designed to be taken up by poorer pupils if they are to have any chance of putting a dent in the educational inequalities that have grown so much wider during the pandemic.”

Children and young people across England are being offered up to 100 million hours of free tuition as part of a £1.4 billion government package to catch up on education lost due to the pandemic.

But the government’s catch-up education tsar Sir Kevan Collins quit in June after ministers rejected his recommendation of a far more ambitious £15bn programme. Sir Kevan said the government’s funding “falls far short of what is needed”.

Labour’s shadow education secretary Kate Green said: “The Conservatives have treated children as an afterthought throughout the pandemic and their chaotic, last-minute response in schools failed children at every turn.

“Ministers left thousands of children without the ability to learn, with months of school being missed before even the first laptops were sent out.

“The priority must now be preventing further disruption in school and helping children bounce back.”

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