Education plays a key role in cultivating the cognitive, behavioural and emotional skills that enable children to succeed in life. What are school closures during lockdown likely to mean for the accumulation of these skills among primary and early secondary school age children?
In the UK, most children have not attended school since mid-March. Instead, education is taking place remotely and often with significantly reduced contact hours between teachers and pupils. What do we know about the potential impact of missed schooling on the development of their cognitive, behavioural and emotional skills?
What does evidence from economic research tell us?
- More time in school directly translates into better performance in exams and assessments. Even brief spells of missed school can lead to non-trivial reductions in pupil attainment. In the absence of substitutes – for example, teaching by a parent at home – a reduction in schooling is likely to have a detrimental impact on children’s knowledge and skills.
- Some parents respond to changes in schooling: for example, when class sizes increase, high-income parents typically respond by spending more time with their children on homework. This suggests that during the lockdown, some families will be more likely than others to compensate for missed schooling.
- Differences in levels of education, available time and financial resources across households are likely to affect both the ability of parents to replace lost learning from school and the ability to provide an enriching home environment.
- Furthermore, these disparities are widening during the current period: the lack of availability of childcare is putting increased pressure on the time of working parents, and worries over health and potential job losses are contributing to more stressful household environments.
- Emerging survey evidence suggests substantial differences in resources between socio-economic groups during lockdown. For example, in one survey, 44% of middle-class parents reported spending more than four hours a day learning with their child, while only 33% of working-class parents reported doing so. This all suggests that children who are already disadvantaged are likely to slip further behind their more affluent peers.
How reliable is the evidence?
In the UK, most children have not attended school since mid-March. Instead, schooling is taking place remotely and often with significantly reduced contact hours. This decline in schooling inputs and the associated rise in the influence of the home environment are likely to have implications for children’s outcomes.
Effects of missed schooling
There is a considerable body of cross-country, peer-reviewed evidence on the detrimental impact of missed schooling on children’s accumulation of skills, the importance of parental investments for children’s outcomes, and the systematic differences in parental investments across socio-economic groups.
Research tells us that the amount of time spent in school has a significant impact on outcomes. For example, a cross-country comparison finds significantly better test results in countries where pupils receive more hours of instruction per week (Lavy, 2015).
Conversely, even brief spells of missed school can lead to non-trivial reductions in pupil attainment – evidence from Sweden (Carlsson et al, 2015) shows that an increase of just 10 days in school time significantly improves performance on tests of knowledge, although there is no effect on tests involving problem-solving.
Similarly, evidence on the impact of teacher strikes on pupil attainment (for example, Belot and Webbink, 2010; and Baker, 2013) indicates that lost days of teaching results in poorer pupil performance in assessments. This tells us that in the absence of substitutes, a reduction in schooling is likely to have a detrimental impact on children’s knowledge and skills.
Yet evidence also suggests that schools can recover some of the learning loss arising from closures. For example, one study finds no detrimental impact on pupil achievement following snowfall-induced school closures, although those closures were shorter than those in the current period.
Likewise, parents can also be responsive to changes in schooling (Goodman, 2014). Research in Sweden finds that high-income parents spent more time with their children on homework following an increase in class size (Fredriksson et al, 2016). The study finds no such response among less affluent parents, which points to a broader concern: that during the lockdown, some families will be more likely than others to compensate for missed schooling.
Differences in household resources
Research documents substantial differences in financial, time and cognitive resources across households. These are likely to affect both the ability of parents to replace lost learning from school and the ability to provide an enriching home environment more generally.
For example, income has been highlighted as an important determinant of children’s outcomes (Cooper and Stewart, 2017). Evidence supports two main channels of impact: the first relates to parents’ ability to invest in goods and services that support children’s development; and the second operates through increases in parental stress associated with financial hardship (Conger et al, 1994).
A consistent research finding is poorer educational outcomes for children growing up in low-income families. For example, one study finds a positive impact on results in English and maths following a rise in family income, with the biggest effects for younger children and more disadvantaged families (Dahl and Lochner, 2012).
Highly correlated with income are other family characteristics, such as time investments and parental cognitive and non-cognitive abilities. These are important determinants of the quality of the home learning environment and parent-child interactions, which in turn explain a substantial amount of the socio-economic gap in children’s outcomes (Kelly et al, 2011).
These disparities exist during normal times but increases in family stress during the current period of economic and social disruption are likely to exacerbate inequalities in child outcomes. For example, in the absence of childcare, there is emerging evidence of increased pressure on the time of working parents (Cattan et al, 2020). Concerns over the health of the family and potential job losses are also likely to create more stressful home environments during lockdown and beyond (Moroni et al, 2020).
To the extent that additional pressures arising from the lockdown fall disproportionately on already vulnerable groups, we would expect inequalities to widen. Indeed, surveys of parental time use during lockdown indicate that this may be the case.
One recent survey finds that children from better-off households are spending on average 30% more time each day engaged in educational activities compared with children from the poorest fifth of households (Andrew et al, 2020). Looking at specific activities, children in the top fifth of the income distribution are twice as likely to be receiving private tuition compared with the poorest children, and parents from better-off households report receiving more resources from school to support home learning.
Moreover, there is evidence from the Netherlands indicating socio-economic gaps in perceived parental ability with higher educated parents more likely to feel capable of helping their children than less educated parents (Bol, 2020). Irrespective of the accuracy of these perceptions, this has real implications: 70% of highly educated parents report helping their child with homework compared with 50% of the least educated parents.
Although less robust, these real time survey data, together with a considerable body of peer-reviewed work on the importance of the home learning environment, suggest that already disadvantaged pupils are likely to slip further behind their more affluent peers during this period of lockdown.
What else do we need to know?
Despite the significant disruption, schools are trying to continue teaching, albeit in a new online format. But there is significant variation in the amount of support offered by schools and uncertainty around the impact of online learning for young learners.
It will be important to evaluate the impact of the current online version of school, especially for the most disadvantaged children who are both less likely to receive support from school and less likely to have a home environment that is supportive of learning.
Much of the existing research looks at the impact of lost schooling on outcomes, but much less is understood about the impact of missed schooling on non-cognitive skills, which are important determinants of life outcomes.
Furthermore, restrictions during lockdown not only prevent children from attending school but significantly limit other opportunities for social interaction. It will be important to understand the impact of this period of disruption on children’s socio-emotional skills and wellbeing.
In terms of helping children to make up for missed learning, we have good evidence on what works to reduce attainment gaps during normal times (see, for example, the Education Endowment Foundation).
But in the current circumstances we do not know the scale of the problem, the cost of the investment required or how feasible it will be to implement additional support once schools re-open under social distancing. These issues will need to be explored in the design of effective policy response.
Where can I find out more?
Learning during the lockdown: real-time data on children’s experiences during home learning: The Institute for Fiscal Studies presents initial findings from a survey of parents in England on children’s time use during lockdown.
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 on 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 draw on economic evidence to discuss likely effects of lockdown on children’s attainment and what policy responses might be effective in mitigating these effects.
School is out, does it hurt us? Writing for school students, Simon Burgess and Hans Henrik Sievertsen use economic evidence to discuss the likely effects of school closures on children’s outcomes and introduce readers to the economic concepts and methodologies behind the evidence.
COVID-19: exacerbating educational inequalities? Orla Doyle reviews the evidence around drivers of educational inequalities plus recent survey evidence documenting differences in these drivers across households during lockdown.