The pandemic widens the attainment gap

How can disadvantaged students be supported?
Photo by Evan Dvorkin on Unsplash
Photo by Evan Dvorkin on Unsplash

School closures due to the COVID-19 pandemic will likely have a bigger impact on economically disadvantaged students than their peers, making the attainment gap even wider. Disadvantaged students will need additional support when they come back to school, and summer learning opportunities might help both their wellbeing and their learning.

Missing out on classroom time during the coronavirus pandemic will not have an equal impact on all students. According to a rapid assessment of the existing evidence on school closures around the world by the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF), it is likely that the attainment gap has widened. That means that students from poorer backgrounds will be even further behind their peers academically than before the pandemic. Alarmingly, the assessment suggests that almost a decade of progress in narrowing the gap may have been reversed.

Supporting disadvantaged students through distance teaching may lessen the negative impact, but this is a challenge when home environments can be so different. A parent survey from the Institute of Fiscal Studies and the UCL Institute of Education showed that students from better-off families were spending more time learning at home, with access to more resources. Much of the work in helping disadvantaged students will therefore have to happen when they return to school.

The EEF’s rapid assessment pointed to targeted support and professional development as two approaches to catch disadvantaged students up. Targeted support in the form of individual tuition, possibly to be delivered by university students, was highlighted as a particularly effective approach that schools could focus on when students are back.

“Almost a decade of progress in narrowing the gap may have been reversed.”

Since quality of teaching has such a large impact on student outcomes, especially for disadvantaged students, teacher professional development was suggested as the second key way of reducing the attainment gap. It is important for any teaching strategies learnt through professional development to be grounded in science, so that teachers are armed with the best available scientific evidence to apply in the classroom.

This assessment was published in the week that some English primary schools reopened after 10 weeks of closure, but for just the youngest (Reception and Year 1) and oldest children (Year 6) – with no opening of secondary schools.

Understandably, some parents are not sure whether or not it is safe to send their children back to school, and have refrained from doing so. The parent survey showed that lower-income parents were less willing than higher-income parents for their children to go back to school, indicating that the attainment gap may continue to rise even as schools are starting to open again. If disadvantaged students continue to stay home, they will be missing out on more classroom time than their peers.

“Much of the work in helping disadvantaged students will have to happen when they return to school.”

In the coming months, if parents become convinced that it is safe for their children to leave home, summer schools and outdoor learning classes may be one way of supporting disadvantaged students before the start of the new year in September. Some calls for these summer learning opportunities have focused on support and nurture, as opposed to school-like formal classes. Student wellbeing should be a key consideration of any summer learning initiatives, as students get used to interacting with peers and teachers, and focusing on work again after so long away from school.

The widening of the attainment gap during school closures, along with the likely unfair outcomes of exam cancellations for disadvantaged students, leaves poorer students in a worse situation than before the pandemic. There is no easy answer to reducing the gap, with no single solution. Teacher professional development, individual tuition, and support for students’ wellbeing may all be some help.

“Now more than ever we need solutions that make sure disadvantaged students don’t get left behind.”

These efforts may start over the summer, but they will have to be sustained and continually evaluated and improved if the gap is to be reduced long term. Now more than ever we need solutions that make sure disadvantaged students don’t get left behind.

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