Children from lower-income households face larger learning losses than their peers. Their parents and guardians are also more likely to face reduced earnings as a result of the pandemic. These factors will exacerbate inequality unless policy-makers act now to close the education gap.
Over the past 15 months, children across the country have suffered as a result of school closures and the loss of social activities. But children in poorer households carry a heavier burden across a number of dimensions – from learning losses to food insecurity.
In terms of their education, many children from disadvantaged backgrounds were already behind their more affluent classmates before the pandemic. This has been exacerbated in many cases – for example, by unequal access to resources and space to engage fully in remote learning.
Evidence suggests that government policies to mitigate learning losses, such as targeted small group tutoring or funding to replace missed schooling, are much more cost-effective for both children and the economy as a whole, compared with current levels of limited intervention, which has allocated around 2% of pupil spending across a universal catch-up fund and pupil premium.
How has the pandemic affected child poverty and food poverty?
The number of children defined as coming from poorer backgrounds has increased since early 2020. While 46% of children in lone-parent households lived in poverty in March 2020, this had increased to 49% a year later (Child Poverty Action Group, 2021).
More children now receive free school meals (their eligibility linked to their parents receiving benefits), with 21% doing so in October 2020 compared with 17% in January 2020 (GOV.UK, 2021).
These figures should be seen as a red flag given evidence that living in poverty during childhood lowers individuals’ achievement, not just in the short run but into adulthood. Indeed, family income in childhood affects educational attainment and even wages at age 30 (Dahl and Lochner, 2012; Carneiro et al, 2021).
Which groups were most affected by loss of schooling?
Between March 2020 and May 2021, schools in the UK were closed for 36 weeks and open for just 24 weeks. Some children were absent from school even during the weeks when schools were open – for example, if they or another child within their bubble reported a confirmed case of Covid-19. These additional school absences were disproportionately focused in deprived areas.
Figure 1 plots the average number of school days missed against a measure of deprivation – the proportion of pupils in a school on free school meals (Eyles and Elliot Major, 2021). The positive correlation highlights that a 10% point increase in the proportion of pupils eligible for free school meals is associated with 1.4-1.8 extra days missed per pupil during the autumn term of 2020.
Figure 1a: Free school meals eligibility versus average number of school days missed (primary), Department for Education statistics
Source: Eyles and Elliot Major, 2021
Figure 1b: Free school meals eligibility versus average number of school days missed (secondary), Department for Education statistics
There is evidence that during the pandemic, resources for children in lower-income areas were more limited, with fewer laptops available as well as fewer school resources. In January 2021, 86% of private schools but only 50% of state schools delivered live online lessons (Sutton Trust, 2021). School resources matter for children’s achievement, and this inequality of access during the school closures is likely to widen existing attainment gaps between state and private school children.
What is the risk of unemployment for parents in disadvantaged households?
A disproportionate number of parents whose earnings have fallen (or have been lost entirely) were already disadvantaged, as Figure 2 shows. Of the parents whose earnings dropped to zero between January and April 2020, only around 30-37% held a university degree. In contrast, for parents whose earnings stayed the same, around 50% were university educated (Hupkau et al, 2020).
This matters as the loss of parents’ income harms children’s development, particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds (Tominey, 2020). For example, evidence from the United States shows that a $1,000 change in parents’ income in a low-income household has a 2.6 times larger effect on children’s achievement at school compared with high-income households (Dahl and Lochner, 2012).
The reason is that money matters for child development. Parents can buy goods or services that directly help their children to succeed (personal tutors, books, laptops for home learning and so on). In lower-income households, a loss of money means less to spend on food and bills (Gregg et al, 2006). In contrast, higher-earning parents are more likely to have a buffer of savings, which can protect their children from the negative effect of earnings losses.
Figure 2: Change in earnings versus share of individuals with a degree or above
Source: Understanding Society COVID-19 Study wave 1 and Understanding Society waves 9-11. Figure from Hupkau et al, 2020
How severe were learning losses for children from deprived backgrounds?
New evidence for the UK has confirmed predictions that children’s achievement in tests dramatically worsened between spring 2020 and spring 2021 (Rising Stars UK 2021). The learning losses were large across all year groups, where for example grammar, punctuation and spelling was lower on average by 3 months progress; and reading lower by 2 months progress.
This drop in attainment was largest for the very young children, who are at the crucial stage of their learning development – learning to read and recognise numbers so that they can progress to higher learning (this result was found also in Fuchs-Schundeln et al, 2020).
As predicted by the evidence presented so far in this article, the learning loss was also far higher for children from relatively disadvantaged backgrounds. In schools with a high proportion of free school meals, the learning losses were almost twice as large compared to other schools. A consequence of COVID is an increase in inequalities in the achievements of children.
What might be the long-term consequences be for children and the economy as a whole?
To date, the UK government has set aside approximately £1.5 billion to help children catch up from the learning losses associated with school closures. Is this enough?
Evidence has been collected over the past 50 years on the additional wages that an individual will earn as a direct consequence of one additional year of schooling. One study using this evidence estimates that the total cost to children from missing half a year of schooling is £350 billion, resulting in £100 billion less tax revenue (Sibieta, 2021). Further, it has been estimated that learning losses from the pandemic could result in lower economic growth in the UK, lasting up to 50 years (Burgess and Sievertsen, 2020).
What are some potential policy solutions?
Children have lost around half a year of schooling, and one option would be for the government to increase funding by half of their annual schooling costs – which comes to £30 billion (Sibieta, 2021). To date, the government has allocated just £1.5 billion, falling far short.
Based on evidence looking at child development, small group tutoring across school years to address lost learning has been recommended, with children attending 30-minute sessions each day (Burgess, 2020). The estimated costs of running such a scheme for 12 weeks, targeting all school years, would be £410 million.
These programmes – which are relatively low-cost – have been trialled in other settings and proved very successful, with a benefit to children of around four months of progress at school (Education Endowment Foundation, 2021). Compared with the costs of school closures, this programme seems very cost-effective.
It is clear from the evidence that more funding for education is needed, particularly targeted at children living in poverty, from low-income areas and those households whose parents have experienced significant earnings losses since the start of the pandemic.
The consequence of the immediate effect on children from poorer households has been documented in terms of their learning losses. But we know that the ‘scarring’ from the pandemic will stay with them across their lifetime, affecting their educational achievements, lowering their wages and even increasing their probability of being unemployed and claiming benefits.
Immediate policy responses are needed to reduce or reverse the inequalities that Covid-19 has generated for children in deprived families.
Where can I find out more?
- COVID-19 and educational losses: The case for sending the youngest back to school: Jo Blanden and Birgitta Rabe discuss the importance of returning to school for children’s education and wellbeing.
- How can we make up the learning losses from lockdown? Simon Burgess discusses policy suggestions for catching up educational losses during the pandemic.
Who are experts on this question?
- Emma Tominey, University of York
- Simon Burgess, University of Bristol
- Hans Henrik Sievertsen, University of Bristol and The Danish Center for Social Science Research
- Andrew Eyles, Centre for Economic Performance, LSE
- Lee Elliot Major, University of Exeter
- Sarah Cattan, IFS
- Luke Sibieta, IFS and Education Policy Institute
- Pedro Carneiro, UCL
- Stephen Machin, LSE
- Monica Costa Dias, IFS
- Cheti Nicoletti, University of York