Questions and answers about
the economy.

Generation Covid: how is the pandemic affecting the young?

The past year has been one of the most volatile periods of education policy in history. It is proving costly for every age group of young people: from pre-school through to further and higher education, and those starting out in their careers.

History is repeating itself. The so-called ‘Spanish flu’ epidemic in the early 20th century led to increases in both poverty and income inequality – and it seems probable that Covid-19 will tend to produce the same effects.

The impact on society of the pandemic of 1918 was still being felt 40 years later in the 1960s. A longitudinal study by the economist Douglas Almond analysed US census data on Americans born between January and September 1919. Socially, this group consisted of ‘underachievers’ compared with those born just earlier or slightly after the outbreak. They were less successful in their educational achievements, had lower levels of income and were more likely to receive welfare grants.

The current pandemic is proving to be the most volatile periods of education policy in history and costly to every age group: from pre-school through to further and higher education, and those starting out in their careers. Here we examine the impact of the pandemic and lockdown on a generation of young people.

Pre-school, early years and childhood development

When the first national lockdown started on 23 March 2020, one million 0-4 year olds stopped attending childcare. Social and educational opportunities suffered, parents struggled with working from home and balancing childcare responsibilities, while nurseries, playgroups and child-minders lost out financially.

Before lockdown, 1.4 million 0-4 year olds attended some kind of formal childcare each day – that’s around 90% of 3-4 year olds and 40% of those aged 0-2 years. Children’s brains develop very rapidly in early life and research shows that access to high-quality childcare has potentially beneficial effects of long-lasting influence on attainment, earnings, employment and other outcomes (for example, Havnes and Mogstad, 2011; Heckman et al, 2010).

Disruption to the early learning of children from disadvantaged backgrounds will exacerbate the gaps they already have in being ready for primary school, and go on to widen gaps in educational attainment as they grow older. With each lockdown, there has been loss of access to early education: recent evidence shows that when children attend one additional term of early education, compared with identical children born slightly later, this will have some positive benefit, albeit small.

The impact of school closures, learning losses and remote teaching

Education is key in the development of cognitive behaviour, emotional skills and long-term success in life. School closures have exacerbated existing inequalities and created new ones. The government’s ‘levelling-up’ strategy in poorer regions is now more challenging. Reductions in spending per pupil in the last decade will make it harder for schools to respond to inequalities and the continuing challenges of the crisis.

Based on previous research, estimates suggest that the attainment gaps between children from rich and poor families could have widened by between 11% and 75% by September 2020, with a central projection of 36%. With schools closed, what has learning looked like over the past year for most children and what has been the impact of missing school?

  • The more frequently a child is in school, the better they will do in exams and assessments. Missed school affects attainment and has a detrimental impact on children’s knowledge and life skills.
  • Younger learners have been particularly affected. Higher-income families can access toys and books at home, which is associated with better academic outcomes.
  • Some families have been in a position to help their children and compensate for missed learning.
  • Parents’ ability to help replace lost learning is affected by their own levels of education, time and financial resources.
  • Disparities are widening as a result of the pandemic, with no access to childcare, financial hardship and job losses all contributing to stressful households and exacerbating inequalities.
  • Children who are already disadvantaged have been more likely to fall behind their more affluent peers.
  • Socio-emotional skills and wellbeing have been affected with the lack of opportunity for social interaction, sport and other facilities that schools provide.

Research shows that the amount of time in school has a significant impact on educational outcomes. Lost days are detrimental to children’s knowledge and skills, with the result of poorer pupil performance in assessments.

As we have seen, some families are more likely then others to be in a position to compensate for missed schooling and an enriching home environment. During the first lockdown, children spent on average four and a half hours a day on their education. This equated to a 25% reduction in learning time for primary age children and a 30% reduction for secondary school students (Institute for Fiscal Studies, IFS, 2020)

For already disadvantaged children, the pandemic has seen them fall even further behind their peers. Children who grow up in low-income families have poorer educational outcomes and fewer resources to support their home learning. Around 70% of more highly educated parents are in a position to help their children with homework and to provide an enriching home learning environment.

When schools closed last year, many were able to move learning online, but provision was uncertain and quality varied between schools. As much as 81% of children had limited access to appropriate technology or space to study, with 52% of those eligible for pupil premium funding less engaged with remote learning then their classmates (National Foundation for Educational Research, NFER, 2020).

Earlier in the first lockdown, there was little evidence of the impact of remote learning compared with conventional schooling. Independent schools could continue as normal with remote teaching, but many poorer state schools were not able to offer online learning. The quality of home learning was further affected by parents juggling their own work with attempting to teach their children.

On top of household deprivation, some pupils were put even further behind as they had little access to laptops, internet connections and space at home for independent learning. Analysis of the first lockdown found:

  • Roughly 15% of primary age children and 20% of secondary age children in the poorest third of families based on household income had no computer access compared with 5-10% of children in the richest families (IFS, 2020).
  • Only 10% of teachers reported that all their pupils had access to the internet. This figure varied significantly by pupil background, with 5% of state school teachers reporting that all children have access to the internet, compared with 51% of independent school teachers (Sutton Trust, 2020)

In April 2020, the government announced funding of £85 million towards the rollout of 200,000 laptops for disadvantaged pupils to support home learning. The Office of the Children’s Commissioner calculated that 540,000 children were eligible for a laptop based on criteria set out by the Department for Education (DfE).

By mid-June 2020, only 115,000 devices had been delivered to local authorities and academy trusts, and only 21% of disadvantaged children had been provided with technical support. In the lockdown that began in January 2021, the DfE announced a further rollout of devices to reach one million children and young people by April. In addition, some internet providers have given free data allowances. But this hasn’t covered learning material hosted on external sources, such as YouTube.

Special educational needs and migrant children

Children with special educational needs (SEN) have found the pandemic and home learning especially challenging. Many rely on additional support services to promote wellbeing. These have been restricted during the lockdowns, and the lack of structure and routine have exacerbated mental health problems. The pandemic has severely affected social work, and vulnerable children are even more at risk.

Those children who have an Education, Health and Care Plan have continued to receive schooling, but this has not been universal and support has been limited. SEN children are more likely to come from a disadvantaged background and suffer behavioural problems. Early support with learning and inclusion for SEN children helps to mitigate education performance gaps, but during the lockdowns, this has been difficult to maintain. Organisations such as SCOPE and the NSPCC have provided some resources.

Children with autism have struggled to understand the loss of social contact over the past year. The gap in schooling has had consequences for social interaction especially anxiety problems. Therapeutic and additional educational activities for many children have been partial since schools re-opened as they have continued to be restricted. Overall, there has been little research into the impact of the pandemic on SEN children so far. As one mother said, we are the ‘forgotten families on the brink of collapse’.

Parents of disabled children have felt both the psychological and financial pressures of lockdown as three-quarters of respite and rehabilitation services have been largely withdrawn during the pandemic.

Young adults with SEN have been vulnerable to unemployment and lost economic activity. Even before lockdown, the lack of post-16 training and apprenticeships has been significant for this group. It is vital for them to have targeted employment support in the future.

Any new migrant children entering the UK face language barriers and problems accessing the curriculum. They have not had the benefit of any wider school support. Lockdown has exacerbated existing inequalities and created new ones for refugees, asylum-seekers and unaccompanied children.

Health and mental health

There has been little research about the impact of Covid-19 on the health of children. But using previous research, it is possible to infer the impact of recession on child health. For example, if children are economically disadvantaged and experience poor health, they are more likely to continue to have poor health in adulthood.

Lockdown and social distancing have meant that children have been confined to their homes, which in themselves can be stressful environments. Children’s social and emotional skills are amplified by the experience of their parents, especially if a mother has poor mental health.

Schools are more than just about lessons. They provide opportunities for wellbeing and academics have recommended parents focus on this just as much as learning.

The impact of the pandemic has heightened adolescent mental health and evidence shows that it has continued to decline. Poor long-term mental health can lead to economic consequences by lowering educational attainment. It is crucial that this group are supported as they move into further or higher education, and the labour market. Academics point to policy options to plan changes at school level to improve mental health awareness, including training teachers to spot the warning signs of depression.

In June 2020, priority year groups in both primary and secondary schools returned for some in-person learning. Those that didn’t return to the classroom experienced a greater decline in mental health. Research has compared the cohorts who could return and those who couldn’t, and found a decline in emotional and social behaviour, for example, more tantrums. The negative effects of school closures on child mental health are larger than the impact of lost learning and will take time to amend the harm done.


After the first lockdown, a study found Year 2 children to be around two months behind 2017 expectations for maths and reading. Parents believe catch-up policies are necessary, but are less supportive of longer school days and shorter holidays for their children.

Schools will need to use evidenced-based approaches to help Generation Covid catch-up successfully. For example, small group interventions run by teaching assistants, support for reading, both phonological and oral language skills and early support for foundation or reception classes.

Pre-pandemic, it was estimated that children from disadvantaged backgrounds were about 18 months behind their peers in GCSEs, with children with persistent levels of disadvantage 24 months behind. Secondary schools have adopted continuous teacher assessment to track pupils, but past research evidence shows teacher bias especially the under-assessment of black and minority ethnic students. Assessment should be rigorously evidenced and made without the interference of parents.

In a similar way to the long-term impacts of the Spanish flu, the Covid-19 pandemic will have implications for lost learning. Research shows that from the 2030s, a quarter of the workforce will have lower skills and this could imply a 50-year period of lower growth.


The fiasco of the GCSE and A-level exam results in the summer of 2020 was heartache for many young people, affecting their skills, job prospects and overall inequalities. Any changes to exams matter, as there is strong evidence that education qualifications have important effects on people’s economic and social outcomes over a lifetime.

The 2021 cohort (Years 11and 13) will know less than previous cohorts, which will have implications for future productivity. Since the start of the pandemic, alongside school closures, students have had to self-isolate either individually or as whole year bubbles. Inequalities have been entrenched because of access to remote learning. GCSE and A-level exams have been cancelled again this coming summer and teachers will assess students.

This puts further stress on teachers particularly around grade inflation and devalues qualifications for those applying to university or transferring to work. The further and higher education sectors will have to adjust to account for the significant loss of learning. Vocational and technical qualifications face a stark challenge, as many young people will require further practical training before they meet a standard required by a trade.

Both KS1 and KS2 tests have been cancelled for primary school pupils this summer.

Higher education, apprenticeships and early careers

University admissions rely on teacher predictions, but this has always given an inaccurate picture. Before Covid-19, fewer than one in five school students had their A-level results accurately predicted by their teachers. With the cancellation of exams, universities can use other sources of information known as ‘soft metrics’. These include personal statements, teacher references, interviews and entrance tests, such as those used by Oxford and Cambridge.

But soft metrics are not good for social mobility as they introduce bias. Similarly, universities could use GCSE results when considering applications. For the current Year 13 cohort, their GCSEs were two years ago and this will miss significant changes in academic performance. Research shows that this is a poor predicator of where a student is at by the end of Year 13. Academics believe this is a ‘once in a generation’ opportunity to change a flawed system that continues the inequality of predicted grades. A government consultation is under way to ‘level-up’ university admissions. This closes on 13 May 2021.

All universities have been hit financially by the pandemic. Many were already struggling, but the fall in international students, a pension scheme deficit, loss of revenue from events has meant less money for research and teaching.

All teaching, except practical subjects, such as science, medicine and veterinary science, has been online since September 2020. It is questionable as to why students should pay fees if all learning is online. Many students will never have met their tutors, experienced a face-to-face lecture or studied in the library. Online lecture streaming lowers the achievement of lower-ability students and those who have less self-regulation in learning may fail to thrive under remote teaching.

University exams have also been held online, which has shown a higher pass rate or greater uncertainty in scoring online exams, which can affect the value of these qualifications to future employers. Going to university is not just about learning at a higher level: it is also about social interactions and these have been missed too.

Graduating in an economic downturn can have negative consequences for young people in terms of pay and progression. Many, especially those from wealthier backgrounds with access to the ‘bank of mum and dad’, may opt to stay in education for longer, exacerbating inequality.

Those entering the labour market over the next year will find it extremely difficult, especially low-skilled school and college leavers. Periods of unemployment or low-wage employment during a graduate’s early career will lead to ‘scarring’, which can lower earnings for years to come. Graduates will experience substantial economic loss as a result of the pandemic in the short and long term.

Since the start of the pandemic, apprenticeships have been interrupted and on/off job training has been difficult due to social distancing and with so many workplaces closed. In June 2020, a survey showed only 40% of apprenticeships continued as normal and many apprentices were either furloughed or made redundant. Training provision has been strained and there is a future risk apprenticeships will not be offered. Past evidence shows apprenticeships fall in a recession and the future of them depends on the willingness of firms to hire and train new apprentices.

Over the past year, there has been a large drop in the employment of young people. Between September and November 2020, there were 591,000 16-24 year olds unemployed, an increase of 11,000 from the previous quarter and an increase of 109,000 from the year before. There has been little focus on those entering the labour market for the first time, which is highly likely to have a scarring effect, worsen mental health and ultimately affect life expectancy.

For young people to be able to find jobs, there needs to be investment in training or retraining. Although there have been low rates of hospitalisation for 16-24 year olds, they will bear the consequences of the pandemic for many years to come.

Economic analysis suggests as a three-pronged approach for policy:

  • Offer incentives to remain in full-time education in either further or higher education or apprenticeships.
  • Offer incentives to remain in full-time education in either further or higher education or apprenticeships.
  • Offer incentives to remain in full-time education in either further or higher education or apprenticeships.

Who are the experts on this question?

Author: Cathy Farmer
Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash
Recent Questions
View all articles
Do you have a question surrounding any of these topics? Or are you an economist and have an answer?
Ask a Question
Submit Evidence