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What do school closures mean for social mobility?

Further closures of schools to contain the spread of coronavirus are likely to exacerbate educational inequalities. Learning losses could have long-term consequences for the life chances of children from disadvantaged backgrounds.

Learning losses have been felt disproportionately by poorer pupils, both during the closure of schools in the initial lockdown and subsequently during the significant education disruptions of the autumn and winter. Extended school closures in early 2021 are likely to widen educational inequality.

There is widespread public support for keeping schools open and reforming exams to make them fairer. Unless action is taken, the prospects for both absolute and relative social mobility are bleak, with young people likely to do less well than their parents.

Closing schools is one of the most difficult decisions that governments have had to make in their efforts to halt the spread of Covid-19. This is a trade-off between the costs to health and education. While ministers have been forced into further closures as coronavirus cases peak once again, they should also be aware of unequal and long-term damage that learning losses could have on the nation’s children.

Initial lockdown

When the pandemic first peaked early in 2020, the UK became one of 45 countries in Europe and Central Asia to close its schools (Donnelly and Patrinos, 2020). By 20 March, only vulnerable children and the children of key workers received classroom-based instruction. For most pupils, school closures lasted for around 12 weeks.

The resultant learning losses have been disproportionately felt by poorer pupils. The home learning divide was due to variations in several factors, including: the effectiveness of school delivery of online teaching; the capacity of parents to home school their children; the availability of quiet study space and internet connectivity; and the ability to pay for private tutoring.

Initial analyses of parental and child time use during lockdown highlighted a stark socio-economic divide in lost learning hours (Andrew et al, 2020; Green, 2020). Our analysis was conducted with national household panel data from Understanding Society and our own bespoke survey (Elliot Major et al, 2020).

We find that nearly three-quarters of private school pupils benefitted from full school days during lockdown, nearly double the proportion of state school pupils (39%). Meanwhile parents in the highest fifth of incomes were over four times as likely to supplement their children’s learning with private tuition than parents in the lowest fifth of incomes (15.7% compared with 3.8%).

Parents are well aware of the differences in their ability to plug the gap caused by school closures. When we asked parents of school age children the extent to which they felt they had been able to make up for learning losses during the first lockdown, we find a strong divide by parental income (see Figure 1). Of respondents in the top fifth of earners, 86% reported being able either to make up a little or a lot of the lost teaching hours. In contrast, only 29% of those in the bottom fifth of earners expressed the same beliefs.

Figure 1: Parents’ views of their ability to make up for learning losses during the first lockdown

Figure showing parents' views of ability to make up for learning losses

Notes: LSE-CEP Social Mobility Survey, September/October 2020 Parents of those in full time education, sample size = 1962

Persistent divides

The majority of the nation’s schools opened their gates in September 2020. Despite the re-opening, school absences due to Covid-19 meant that learning still did not return to pre-lockdown levels. Data from the Department for Education show that average attendance at state schools in England hovered between 85% and 90% over the course of the autumn term before falling to 84.6% in the week prior to schools breaking up for Christmas (see Figure 2). Secondary schools saw lower attendance than primary schools, and attendance was particularly low in London and South East England.

In a similar fashion to learning losses during lockdown, the aggregate picture obscures considerable heterogeneity in the experiences of pupils from different backgrounds.

Figure 2: Department for Education statistics on attendance at English state schools

Figure showing daily school attendance rates

Figure 3: Statistical relationship between additional school absences and disadvantage

Figure showing statistical relationship between attendance and disadvantage

This is shown by looking at the statistical relationship between the average number of missed days over the course of the term and the proportion of pupils on free school meals (FSM), a standard measure of disadvantage (see Figure 3).

Children in more disadvantaged areas have suffered from more school absences. At local authority level, each 10-percentage point increase in the proportion of pupils eligible for FSM is associated with an extra 1.4 to 1.8 days missed per pupil over the course of the autumn term. Authorities with the lowest proportions of FSM pupils experienced two missed days per pupil during the autumn, while authorities with the highest proportions of FSM pupils experienced 9.6 missed days.

Educational scarring

Emerging evidence shows that school closures have widened achievement gaps between poorer pupils and their more privileged peers. One study finds significant falls in test scores for a large sample of 11-year olds in Flemish schools in Belgium who returned to take tests in June 2020 (Maldonado and DeWitte, 2020). Research suggests that pupils could experience a range of learning losses of between three and six months during the academic year, with disadvantaged pupils most likely to be falling behind. Even small falls in test scores can damage life chances if pupils fail to cross arbitrary grade thresholds needed to pursue further education (Machin et al, 2020).

Economists have shown that early investments in children’s skills raise the efficacy of future investments (Heckman and Mosso, 2014). Skills beget skills. The converse holds for skill deficits. Young children who have missed out on key parts of the curriculum are less likely to benefit from their lessons once they return to school.

This is likely to have a detrimental effect on future levels of social mobility, particularly as the pandemic has worsened economic and educational inequalities at the same time (Elliot Major and Machin, 2020; Elliot Major et al, forthcoming in 2021). Parental job loss not only has large effects on educational attainment (Rege et al, 2011; Ruiz-Valenzuela, 2020), but it also has large intergenerational effects. One study shows that parental job loss during childhood is associated with lower earnings in adulthood, particularly for poorer families (Oreopoulos et al, 2008).

Implications for further school closures

The evidence of learning losses suffered during the pandemic so far suggests that further school closures in early 2021 are likely to exacerbate educational inequalities. This may be why there is so much public support for keeping schools open. Of the parents who responded to our September questionnaire, 71% said that the long-term risks of not going back to school in the autumn term outweighed the benefits of limiting the spread of Covid-19.

What can be done?

The priority for social mobility will be to avoid school closures for as long as possible – although this has to be balanced against the short-term needs to limit the spread of the virus and keep schools safe for teachers and pupils. If schools have to be closed, the short-term priority should be to ensure high quality online learning accessible to all pupils.

Ministers have unveiled a number of reforms to GCSEs and A-levels and their equivalents in 2021 to make them fairer for pupils. Some pupils in Wales and Scotland will not be sitting exams but will be assessed by their teachers. In England, measures include advance notice of exam topics, exam aids and more generous grading (in line with that for 2020).

One review suggests that retaining exams with some important adjustments is still the best and fairest way to assess pupils (Macmillan et al, 2020). One option would be to create a one-off special flagging system alongside exam grades to identify pupils who have been most seriously affected by Covid-19. Universities, colleges and employers would take their extenuating circumstances into account when judging the grades.

In addition, sustained learning losses may justify further reforms that go beyond simply changing exam protocols. If school closures are extended to mid-February 2021, as some are suggesting, then many pupils will have missed half of their classroom-based learning since March 2020 (a normal school year is composed of 39 weeks). A radical option in this direction would be to allow greater flexibility for pupils to repeat a whole school year. If significant school absences continue in 2021, it may also call into question the viability of end of year exams in England.

Our research finds widespread support for reform (see Figure 4). Just under three-quarters of parents of school children and teenagers in full-time education agreed that learning losses caused by Covid-19 should be taken into account when GCSEs and A-level exams take place in 2021.

Figure 4: Public views about the need for exam reform

Figure showing public views on exam reform

Note: LSE-CEP Social Mobility Survey, September/October 2020, Sample Size = 2564

We have previously advocated a national tutoring service to help to make up learning losses, but the current government-backed national tutoring programme is not of the scale needed to address these inequalities. The government will need to target significant extra resources to help the most disadvantaged pupils.

Unless action is taken, reduced hours of learning, persistent absences from school and weakening economic conditions at home equate to bleak prospects for the young. Before the pandemic, they were already facing declining absolute social mobility. The legacy of the pandemic could be a long-term decline in relative social mobility – driven by the scarring effects of earning and learning losses.

Where can I find out more?

Who are UK experts on social mobility?

Authors: Andrew Eyles (Research economist in the education and skills programme at the Centre for Economic Performance) and Lee Elliot Major (Professor of Social Mobility at the University of Exeter and an Associate of the Centre for Economic Performance at the London School of Economics)
The authors’ research with Stephen Machin is funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) as part of the UK Research and Innovation’s rapid response to Covid-19. The authors gratefully acknowledge this funding under grant number ES/V010433/1.
Photo by Kyo Azuma on Unsplash
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