Will a decade of progress in tackling pupil disadvantage 'wiped out'?


Education charity finds coronavirus school closures may have reversed years of work to narrow gap in England


Schools across the UK closed on 20 March to all but vulnerable pupils and the children of key workers. Many will be out of education until September, so how will a nation of children be affected by such a long break in their education?


A new study by the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) charity said the closure of schools to most pupils was likely to reverse all progress made to close the gap since 2011.


Russell Hobby, the chief executive of Teach First, a charity that aims to address educational disadvantage in England and Wales, responded to the findings and said:


“It’s devastating that children from poorer backgrounds risk having their education interrupted by this pandemic,” he said. “Nearly 10 years of progress in narrowing the gap wiped in a few months is tragic.”

Over the past decade the attainment gap between disadvantaged pupils and their classmates at the end of primary school in England is estimated to have narrowed from 11.5 months in 2009 to 9.2 months in 2019, according to the Education Policy Institute. However, the EEF fears that progress made since 2011 will now be lost.


The EEF analysis, published on Wednesday, said its median estimate was that the attainment gap could widen by 36% but that “plausible estimates” indicated it could widen by between 11% and 75%! Urgent and sustained support will be needed to help disadvantaged pupils catch up, but the damage is likely to have already have been done.


The findings mirror thinking among senior figures in the Department for Education. In May, Vicki Stewart, the deputy director of the DfE’s pupil premium and school food division, said the pandemic would “almost certainly” have “a very significant impact” on the attainment gap, pointing to predictions of it widening by 75%.


The government is showing signs that it is listening to the public and campaign groups, as demonstrated by the recent investment into the arts, culture and heritage sector, but it must pump more resources and funding towards the schools and pupils “who have suffered the most” to rectify the harm done and mitigate further decline which could result in a generation of children suffering for decades.


The government recently pledged access to free computers, a pledge which has failed to deliver. Disadvantaged children are less likely to have access to laptops, tablets and other devices to learn online, and their parents are less likely to be able to assist them in their at-home schooling. Disadvantaged schools often have fewer funds to invest in extra-curricular activities such as arts and crafts, creative learning and languages, and may also have a shortage of teachers who can teach a broader spectrum of specialist subjects. All this and more means that disadvantaged children have less access, fewer resources, and lower quality learning experiences than children in more affluent areas where schools are better funded.

The EEF chief executive, Prof Becky Francis, said: “The evidence is clear that children learn less when they are not in school. Our analysis highlights that this particularly impacts those from disadvantaged backgrounds and widens the attainment gap.”


Theatre Workout, via the Cultural Learning Alliance, is a part of the newly formed Drama and Theatre Education Alliance and is working towards campaigns designed to level the playing field and create opportunities for disadvantaged students to access drama and creative learning experiences.


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