Amid the UK’s ongoing school closures and national lockdowns, the education sector has faced mounting concerns regarding how the disruption has impacted students’ learning and development. But with the government hoping to reopen schools as next month, early as 8 March, the true impact of the pandemic is yet to be revealed, but an extensive report into the effects on primary school pupils (age 5–11) has shown that the lockdown learning loss consequences are far more severe among younger students, with Year 1 pupils (age 5–6) experiencing the biggest decline, and taking longer to recover lost learning upon the brief return to school in September 2020.
Examining more than 6,000 primary education providers across the UK, representing 1.47m pupils, the Juniper Education National Dataset Report, February 2021 looked at the percentage of learners who were achieving, or exceeding, age-related education expectations from Years 1 through to 6 in reading, writing and maths post-pandemic, comparing how their remote learning development fared against pre-COVID progression levels.
On top of this, the report delves into the effect the return to in-person teaching from September to December last year had on their learning.
“A lot of skills such as how do I learn, listen and collaborate are developed at school. They provide the building blocks which allow for progress in learning. Many children have had fewer opportunities to embed these skills at home” – Frazer Westmorland, headteacher, Mundella Primary School
The study shows that, while all age groups have faced barriers when it comes to age-related expectations, younger children have struggled most; pre-pandemic, 82% of Year 1 pupils achieved age-related expectations in reading, 79% in writing and 83% in maths. By summer 2020, however, these figures dropped to 60%, 54% and 59% of pupils, respectively. Overall, maths was the subject in which learning loss was most clearly evidenced.
“Younger pupils have certainly been the most affected from their time away from the classroom,” said Frazer Westmorland, headteacher of Mundella Primary School in Kent. “A lot of skills such as how do I learn, listen and collaborate are developed at school. They provide the building blocks which allow for progress in learning. Many children have had fewer opportunities to embed these skills at home. It means we need to go back to basics with younger year groups to build these skills before we can help them progress.”
In Years 2–6, the number of children achieving at or beyond the expected standard for their age dropped by around one fifth between autumn 2019 and summer 2020.
In a worrying trend exacerbated by the events of the last 12 months, disadvantaged pupils have been disproportionately affected by school closures when compared to their more advantaged peers. As of summer last year across all primary learning levels, only 43% of disadvantaged students (those who qualified for pupil premium) met age-related expectations for reading, compared to 63% of their non-disadvantaged counterparts. For writing, these figures stood at 36% vs 55%, and for maths, 41% vs 61%.
The report also explores assessment data for the September–December return to school last year, revealing that learning loss recovery for younger pupils was much slower than for their older peers. On top of this, SEND (special educational needs and disabilities) and disadvantaged students found it harder to reclaim lost ground, highlighting the need for additional learning support for these student groups upon the eventual return to the classroom.
For disadvantaged pupils, there was a far more pronounced drop in their ability to perform at expected levels than their more advantaged peers, with Year 1, again, most significantly affected. When it comes to Year 1 SEND learners, expected achievements in maths declined by almost a third.
“Although the report will make difficult reading for many, there is hope in these findings too. It will be a huge comfort to parents to know that when children are back in front of their teachers, they can make up for lost time” – Stephan Nicholls, education consultant
But there are glimpses of hope, especially for older primary school students; Year 6 pupils, for example, were clearly the most resilient, successfully addressing many learning gaps in the return to school period last year. According to the report, an impressive 75% had achieved age-related expectations in reading by the Christmas break, with 67% doing the same in writing and 71% in maths. This is notably only a few percentage points behind pre-pandemic learning levels from 2019, which stood at 78%, 72% and 77%, respectively.
Stephan Nicholls, report author and former primary head, now an education consultant consultant for Juniper Education, commented: “To put an effective recovery plan in place, we must know which children have suffered the most from the pandemic. This report will help those that work in education understand where the greatest learning losses are so they can effectively direct their teaching when the school gates are fully open again.
“Although the report will make difficult reading for many, there is hope in these findings too. It will be a huge comfort to parents to know that when children are back in front of their teachers, they can make up for lost time. But we must make sure that children with additional educational barriers to learning are given extra support so they are not left behind.”