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How might the crisis affect children from poorer backgrounds?

Children who grow up in low-income households or whose parents have low levels of education lag behind their peers in progress on maths and reading at school. They also typically have worse behavioural skills. Will the lockdown and the recession make things even worse for them?

These gaps in test results and behavioural skills increase through children's years at school. Evidence suggests that the Covid-19 crisis will widen these existing gaps in the skills of children in terms of their knowledge, mental health and behavioural skills.

What does evidence from economic research tell us?

The Covid-19 crisis will delay the development of children, especially those from low-income and low-educated households. Early estimates suggest attainment gaps between disadvantaged children and their peers may widen by around 36% (EEF, 2020).

The sources for these unequal effects on children include a worsened home environment (including loss of income and parents’ mental health problems) and lower educational and time resources going to children both from school and their parents.

Parents’ income and employment linked to children’s development

Low-income individuals are more likely to work in sectors that have been shut down during the Covid-19 pandemic (Joyce and Xu, 2020). The evidence tells us that any negative unexpected changes for parents (such as job loss and income reduction) will filter through to children.

This is particularly true for disadvantaged children where, for example, the effect of a $1,000 increase in income on child test scores was 2.6 times higher in low-income households compared with high-income households (Dahl and Lochner, 2012). A parent losing their job can lower children’s earnings at age 25-33 by 9% (Oreolopolus et al, 2008), mainly through lower income but also through increased stress.

Stressful home environments and children’s development

Children’s behaviour, mental health and wellbeing are negatively affected by living in a stressful household. In particular, vulnerable children with existing behavioural problems will experience the most negative consequences of living in a stressful home environment, for example, if their parents have mental health problems, they have a harsh parenting style or they spend little time with their children (Moroni et al, 2019).

Increasing the stressful home environment for children with poor behavioural skills will increase any existing inequalities in children’s behaviour by around 34% for boys and 52% for girls (Moroni et al, 2019).

School closures and children’s development

Evidence of the effect of school closures primarily focuses on the effects on children’s achievement in maths, reading and other tests. The effect can be really large, equivalent to moving a child with average attainment to being in the bottom 30% in maths and reading. In particular, there is evidence that the negative consequences will be largest for disadvantaged children (Johnson, 2011).

During school closures, the consequences for children depend on different factors, including the ability of parents to spend time home schooling their children; the resources that schools give to families to help with home schooling; and the home learning environment of households.

Related question: What will be the impact of lockdown on children's development?

Inequalities in parents’ ability to work from home

We know that there is a socio-economic gradient in people’s ability to work from home, which may reduce the time for lower-income parents to home school their children (Adams-Prassl et al, 2020).

Related question: Who can work from home and how does it affect their productivity?

This can be seen below in a plot of the amenability of different occupations to work from home against the average gross weekly pay for that occupation in the UK (Costa Dias et al, 2020). The line plots the average relationship showing that higher earning occupations have greater capacity to be based at home.

Figure 1: Amenability of different occupations to home-based work against average earnings for different occupations

Graph showing the correlation between being able to do a job from home and average pay

Source: Institute for Fiscal Studies analysis of Labour Force Survey data for 2018-19.

This inequality will filter through to children, as high-income parents may be able to work from home and potentially dedicate more time to home schooling compared with lower-income parents. Indeed, children from more affluent families are spending 30% more time on home learning during the Covid-19 crisis compared with less affluent households (Andrew et al, 2020).

Inequalities in the resources provided from schools to families

In addition, there is some suggestive evidence of disparities in school and home resources available for parents. This is true when comparing state schools and private schools, or comparing across state schools in more and less affluent parts of the country (Sutton Trust, 2020).

As of April 2020 in the UK, children from independent schools were twice as likely to provide online lessons compared with state schools. Disadvantaged state schools were less likely to have an online platform to post work for children than advantaged state schools (23% compared with 37%) or independent schools (60%).

For the work that was set, children from 50% of independent schools were sending in up to three-quarters of their school work for teachers to provide feedback compared with 27% from advantaged state schools and 8% from disadvantaged state schools.

There is incomplete evidence about the effect of different home schooling resources on children’s development, although some evidence that receiving feedback on work improves children’s achievement (Andersen and Nielsen, 2019).

In the worst-case scenario, some children are not learning anything while others are continuing as normal. This will magnify the existing gaps in children’s achievement.

Inequalities in the home learning environment 

On top of this, there are large differences in the home learning environment, with highly educated parents more likely to have educational books and resources (Sutton Trust, 2020). These different resources across households whose parents have a low and high level of education can explain around 15% of the achievement gap of young children (Macmillan and Tominey, 2019).

Evidence confirms that during the Covid-19 crisis, there is a gap in access to technology for study and private study space across parents’ income (Andrew et al, 2020). This means that entering home schooling, more educated households are just better set up for teaching children.

How reliable is the evidence?

Effects of parental job/income loss and children’s outcomes

The seminal study on the effect of parents’ income on children estimates the effect of a change to household income from the US Earned Income Tax Credit on children’s maths and reading at ages 8-14 shortly after the income change (Dahl and Lochner, 2012). The study is high quality and robust, although a criticism is that it provides an estimate just for households that claim tax credits – so it may not be applicable to higher-income households.

Again, evidence on the effect of parental job loss is robust, reliable and similar across different studies dating back many years. Oreolopolus et al (2008) aim to produce estimates that are policy-relevant – for example, estimating the effect of job loss on children’s development while taking account of the fact that different types of individuals may lose their jobs.

Stresses in the household and children’s development

The evidence comes from one recent study as yet not peer-reviewed, but which does use robust methods. The argument that children with low levels of socio-emotional skills in a stressful home environment will react most strongly to a change in that stressful environment (for example, by improving mental health) is consistent with a recognised theory in psychology called the diathesis-stress framework. This describes socio-emotional problems in children being created through a combination of an innate disposition to the disorder combined with stresses.

School closures

We do not have evidence from shocks on such a scale as Covid-19. But various other policies across the world that have shortened instruction time for children can shed some light on the likely effects, including variation in the length of schooling through teacher strikes, snow days and school holiday loss gaps.

How relevant is this evidence for the Covid-19 crisis? A difference may be that teachers are currently not on strike and they are providing resources to children to help parents with home schooling: therefore, the average effect on children may be lower than implied in these studies. The same argument applies to the school holiday studies during which no or little home schooling takes place.

On the other hand, some children receive less of these resources or cannot access online resources, meaning that the estimates from school closures for disadvantaged children may be spot on.

Unequal resources to help with home schooling

The evidence highlighting the inequalities in working from home across the income or education level of households is of course recent and descriptive. Reassuringly, evidence for the UK from different sources tells the same story.

In particular while Adams-Prassl et al (2020) conducted a relatively small survey of 4,000 individuals, Costa Dias et al (2020) used a large-scale representative UK Labour Force Survey with a sample of around 80,000 individuals in approximately 38,000 households.

There is an evidence gap about how the different resources given from schools to children will affect their development. One study finds that the consequence of a cancelled school test in Denmark through information technology malfunctions caused lower reading achievement, an effect that was particularly large for children from disadvantaged backgrounds (Andersen and Nielsen, 2019).

There is much cross-country evidence documenting the gap in the home learning environment across parents’ income or education, for example, the number of educational books and toys. There is less evidence on the capacity of the home learning environment to close the attainment gap in children across parents’ socio-economic status.

In a recent study, the gap in maths and reading achievement by children seen across parents’ education is attributed to different home resources, with evidence that 15% of the gap can be explained by differences in educational toys and even healthy behaviours across education of parents (Macmillan and Tominey, 2019).

It is quite difficult to identify causal effects in this setting. But the evidence is complemented by research which finds that early policy intervention in pre-school children improves their development through the channels of books and toys around the house, as well as time spent by parents with them on educational activities (Attanasio et al, 2017).

The evidence is consistent that household resources do affect attainment gaps. As noted above, during the Covid-19 crisis, resources for home schooling vary across parent’s education and income levels and consequently, we may expect any existing gaps to widen (Andrew et al, 2020).

What else do we need to know?

There are a number of pressing questions for research, including:

  • How many children are living in households with zero income as parents wait at least five weeks for their new Universal Credit payout?
  • How many children are essentially undertaking no learning during the pandemic? The government may need to intervene here once schools re-open and during any future school closures.
  • How many children are suffering with pre-existing or new mental health problems caused by Covid-19?
  • What support can be given to children living in stressful households, such as where parents have mental health problems?
  • Which home schooling resources will most effectively protect children against school closures?

Related question: When should schools re-open?

Where can I find out more?

Children’s socio-emotional skills and the home environment during the COVID-19 crisis: Gloria Moroni, Cheti Nicoletti and Emma Tominey suggest that socio-emotional issues in children will be amplified if their home environment is stressful, and propose some ways that governments can mitigate that stress and support struggling families.

Schools, skills, and learning: the impact of COVID-19 on education: Simon Burgess and Hans Henrik Sievertsen provide an evidence-based discussion of the likely consequences of the current disruption to education for school age children, children facing cancelled exams and this year’s graduates.

Covid-19 school shutdowns: what will they do to our children’s education?: Andy Eyles, Stephen Gibbons and Piero Montebruno discuss the likely effects of Covid-19 on the education of children of different ages, and discuss policy solutions, including teaching in the school holidays or adding additional hours to the week once school resumes.

What can we learn from an empty classroom?: Michèle Belot describes evidence from school strikes in Belgium and draws lessons for the experience of children during Covid-19.

Who are UK experts on this question?

Author: Emma Tominey
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