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How best should school resources be deployed in response to the Covid-19 crisis?

The Covid-19 crisis is likely to add to existing educational inequalities and create new ones. Cuts to spending per pupil will make it harder for schools in England to address these major challenges, particularly in more disadvantaged areas.

The closure of schools to most pupils during the height of the pandemic seems likely to exacerbate existing educational inequalities and create new ones. In the UK, this will make the government’s goal of levelling up poorer regions of the country much more challenging and complicated. Reductions in spending per pupil over the past decade will make it harder for schools to respond to the inequalities and challenges resulting from the crisis, particularly among schools in disadvantaged areas.

To date, the policy response has been relatively modest and only loosely targeted at disadvantaged schools. Collection of additional data on disadvantage and testing of actual skills would enable a more targeted and ambitious approach, especially given the complex nature of the inequalities that seem likely to emerge.

The crisis will add to existing inequalities and create new ones

There were large educational inequalities even before the Covid-19 crisis. Estimates before the crisis suggest that children from disadvantaged backgrounds were about 18 months behind their peers at GCSE, with children facing persistent levels of disadvantage about 24 months behind (Education Policy Institute, 2020).

The geography of educational disadvantage has also been changing over time, with educational inequalities smallest in inner London and largest in old industrial and coastal towns, such as Blackpool, Knowsley and Plymouth. This fits with wider changes in society, with evidence showing that cities outside London and the South East, former industrial towns and coastal areas are the most left behind in terms of pay, employment, education and incapacity benefits (IFS Green Budget, 2020).

Empirical evidence shows that reduced time in school during lockdown is likely to have reduced or slowed the accumulation of skills (Burgess and Sievertsen, 2020; Pischke, 2007). As summarised in this review of the evidence, the effects are likely to be more pronounced for children from disadvantaged families.

Based on past research, estimates suggest that the attainment gap between children from rich and poor families could have widened by between 11% and 75% by September 2020, with a central projection of 36% (Education Endowment Foundation, 2020). Early evidence confirms this by showing widening test score inequalities during lockdown compared with before, with larger widening of inequalities at primary school age groups as opposed to secondary age groups (DELVE, 2020). This could have significant negative implications for social mobility.

While a widening of existing inequalities seems highly likely, it is important to acknowledge that inequalities in the quantity and quality of home schooling received during lockdown are likely to be complex. The size of the economic shock affecting families will differ by area depending on the share of workers in shutdown industries, and the spread of the pandemic has been uneven geographically (Davenport et al, 2020).

The quality of the home learning environment will be linked to parents’ own skills at providing high-quality schooling, access to digital equipment and the availability of a quiet study space (Andrew et al, 2020). While pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds across all areas seem most at risk, the areas most left behind by recent economic changes are not always the same as those most affected by the current crisis (IFS Green Budget, 2020).

The complex nature of the crisis and the changes in deprivation before the crisis point to a need for additional data. That includes data on how children’s skills across a range of domains have been affected, as well as additional deprivation measures about children and their families, such as parental educational levels and access to appropriate digital equipment at home. Such information should make it possible to develop a better understanding of the mechanisms driving Covid-19 educational inequalities and better targeting of catch-up resources.

How prepared are schools for the challenges ahead?

There is now strong evidence showing positive effects of higher resources and school spending, particularly for more disadvantaged pupils, and negative effects of cuts to spending (Jackson et al, 2016; Jackson, 2018; Gibbons et al, 2018). A key determinant of the extent to which schools in England are well prepared to address the inequalities and other challenges from the crisis will therefore be the level, trends and patterns of school spending to date.

Following large increases over the 2000s, total school spending per pupil in England fell by about 9% in real terms (that is, after accounting for inflation) between 2009/10 and 2019/20. The government’s plan to increase school spending by £7 billion in cash terms by 2022/23 will mostly reverse these cuts. Spending per pupil will, however, remain lower in real terms in 2022/23 than it was 13 years earlier in 2009/10 (Sibieta, 2020). Such squeezes in spending per pupil will clearly make it harder for schools to address the significant challenges following the pandemic.

Figure 1 shows trends in the distribution of spending per pupil across schools by the level of disadvantage (as measured by the share of pupils eligible for free school meals). Over the 2000s, spending became much more focused on deprived schools. By 2009/10, spending per pupil was around 30–35% higher in the most deprived schools than in the least deprived schools, up from just over 20% extra in 2000.

Since then, spending per pupil has fallen faster among more deprived schools and the overall funding premium fell to about 25% by 2018/19, taking it back to mid-2000 levels. This can be partly explained by the changing geography of deprivation, with faster falls in deprivation inside London and a school funding system that was slow to adjust to such changes. As a result, spending has not adjusted properly to changes in the patterns of deprivation in England over the last decade.

Figure 1: Spending per pupil by quintile of eligibility for free school meals (relative to least deprived quintile)

Figure showing spending per pupil

Sources: (Sibieta, 2020)

In the long run, a new national funding formula should allow the funding system to adjust to changes in the pattern of deprivation across local authorities. But in the short run, the overall pattern actually looks set to continue under existing plans, with lower planned increases in formula allocations for schools in poorer areas (Sibieta, 2020).

These patterns run counter to the objective of using school funding to ‘level up’ poorer regions of the country and might pose additional challenges for deprived schools seeking to help pupils catch up after school closures during the pandemic.

How can policy-makers best deploy additional resources?

Empirical evidence is reasonably clear on how resources can be best deployed to narrow the educational inequalities resulting from the pandemic. There is now strong evidence showing higher benefits to increases in school resources for more disadvantaged pupils (Jackson et al, 2016; Jackson, 2018; Gibbons et al, 2018). There is also a strong evidence base showing large benefits to tutoring and small-group tuition. Such evidence would therefore suggest a policy response that provides extra resources to more disadvantaged pupils, with a large focus on tutoring and small group tuition.

In England, the Department for Education (DfE) has announced a ‘catch-up premium’ of £80 per pupil paid to schools for all pupils aged 5-16 in 2020/21. This equates to about £2,400 for a primary school class of 30 children. Based on current salaries, that would pay for about 10% of the cost of an additional teaching assistant for a year. The catch-up plans are therefore relatively modest in scale.

The DfE has also announced a national tutoring programme (NTP), with £250 million allocated for pupils aged 5-16 and about £100 million for pupils aged 16-19. The overall goal of this programme is to provide additional targeted support to disadvantaged and other pupils likely to have fallen behind. The NTP is being delivered by the Education Endowment Foundation and Teach First, who are seeking to create a list of high-quality approved tutors (from the set of existing private tutors) and recruiting recent graduates to be mentors attached to individual schools. It is clearly difficult to assess the sufficiency of these proposals, but comparisons with existing evidence and illustrative calculations can be helpful.

First, let us consider what the £250 million NTP funding might be able to provide. Let us assume that there are 1.4 million pupils eligible for support (the number of pupils eligible for free school meals in January 2020) and assume the cost of one hour of one-to-one tuition is £50 (with 75% paid by the NTP and 25% paid by schools). Based on these assumptions, £250 million would provide subsidised access to about six hours in total of tuition for 1.4 million pupils.

Research suggests that an additional two hours of tuition per week for a full school year would be required to make up for each week of learning lost (Eyles et al, 2020). Clearly, the actual amount of tutoring provided through the NTP will depend on the actual costs per hour, which pupils are included and whether the tutoring is on a one-to-one or small-group basis. These calculations still suggest that the scale of the NTP looks modest compared with the scale of likely lost learning.

Second, the catch-up premium is set at the same level for almost all pupils. Providing a higher catch-up premium for disadvantaged pupils would have allowed resources to be better targeted at pupils likely to have experienced the greatest losses in learning. Given that only the NTP is targeted at disadvantaged pupils, the overall package of catch-up support might be limited in its ability to mitigate rising inequalities.

Although the set of catch-up activities is modest in scale and focus, this should be set against concerns about the potential to scale up tutoring and catch-up activities to such a large extent within a short time frame. While the empirical evidence on the effects of tutoring is strong, it has not been attempted at such a scale before.

Ensuring that provision remains high quality everywhere represents a significant challenge. As a result, it would probably have been desirable to allocate more resources to individual schools and leave them more discretion about how to spend the money.

Summary and conclusions

In summary, the loss of learning during the period of school closures is likely to have widened existing educational inequalities and created new ones. Empirical evidence suggests that the best response would involve extra resources targeted at disadvantaged pupils, with a strong focus on tutoring.

To date, the proposed set of catch-up activities in England has been relatively modest and insufficiently targeted at more disadvantaged schools. Funding has also failed to respond to changes in deprivation and disadvantaged in England over the last decade. Collection of additional data on disadvantage and testing of actual skills would enable a more targeted and ambitious approach, especially given the complex nature of inequalities that are likely to emerge.

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Author: Luke Sibieta
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