Peter Lampl

The impact of Covid school closures is now painfully clear

The impact of Covid school closures is now painfully clear
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If the UK government retains any doubts about the scale of the educational challenge it faces after Covid-19, they can now be swiftly swept aside. The challenge is mountainous. New evidence published today by the Education Endowment Foundation, which I chair, starkly reveals the size of it. The study conducted by the National Foundation for Educational Research contrasts the performance of 10,000 Year 1 and Year 2 students (six and seven-year-olds) at the end of the most recent lockdown with the performance of those year groups over the same period in 2019.

The findings ought to concentrate minds. Year 1 pupils made on average three months’ less progress for both reading and mathematics this year, compared with the cohort of spring 2019. Year 2 pupils made three months’ less progress for reading in spring 2021 and around two months’ less progress for mathematics. The study also reveals a substantial gap between disadvantaged and non-disadvantaged pupils. In Year 1, for example, there was a gap of around seven months for both reading and maths. Altogether, these are staggering findings.

Helping students to catch up is a massive challenge for teachers – not least because different students will have fallen behind in different ways. The EEF has evaluated numerous programmes designed to enable students to recover from lost learning, and none has been totally successful in closing the differing gaps. But if schools are not supported in their efforts to close this gap, the cost to the country and its finances of this lost talent will be almost unimaginable. Treasury ministers, who last month decided to provide just £1.5bn of the £15bn requested for educational catch-up by their appointed expert Sir Kevan Collins, would do well to think about these EEF findings as they consider whether to find further funds in this Autumn’s spending review.

The £1.5bn currently on the table is woefully inadequate for the task in hand. While it would be churlish not to welcome the extra cash for extra catch-up tutoring and better early-career teaching, the offered package comes nowhere near meeting the challenge at hand.  What is desperately needed by schools and the students they teach is a multi-year funding plan that provides support for all young people – from toddlers to teenagers – for both their classroom learning and wider development. There should also be funding for the extracurricular activities young people have missed out on this past year to boost their wellbeing and life skills, and for mental health support. Above all, schools themselves need levels of funding, especially for the poorest, to serve their pupils in the ways that they know best.

The long-term consequences of failing to make these commitments will not be limited to the children in question. Innovation, research and entrepreneurship all spring from investment in education, and, in a globalised world, countries are competitive according to how they manage the pipeline of talent supplied by their education systems. There’s a war going on out there –but whereas once governments worried about their fleets of dreadnoughts, now they compete in international education league tables. If Boris Johnson’s administration doesn’t relent on its fiscal approach, the Coronavirus pandemic will have scuppered Britain’s educational fleet in the harbour.

It is not as if ministers haven’t been spending generously in the last 18 months. What with Eat Out To Help Out, furlough, small business support and improved benefits, money has flowed more freely out of the Treasury than at any time since the Second World War. Some of these schemes have been more essential – and responsible – than others, but properly supporting students, both now and in the long term, to catch up with the learning they have lost to the pandemic is every bit as critical as any of them.

Placed on the spot, the government – including Johnson himself – have intimated that there might be extra funding in Autumn’s spending review. But children are falling behind right now, and can’t afford to wait. The evidence provided by the EEF today should concentrate minds when Treasury ministers start writing cheques in the Autumn. And if they choose to ignore the facts that are now laid out clearly in front of them, a whole generation of children will suffer with the country left to bear that cost.

Written byPeter Lampl

Sir Peter Lampl is the founder and chairman of the Sutton Trust and the Education Endowment Foundation

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