Last reviewed 22 October 2021

Many concerns have been raised about the potential impact of the Covid-19 coronavirus pandemic on the lives of young people. These include particular worries about the negative effects of measures such as school closures on children from disadvantaged backgrounds. Teacher Mia Hodgson looks at the key concerns related to the education of disadvantaged children and explores priorities for the new academic year.

Problems for disadvantaged children during the pandemic

All school pupils have found their education disrupted during the Covid-19 coronavirus pandemic. This has mostly been caused by lost face-to-face teaching, despite the best efforts of schools to compensate through increased online education.

In general, disadvantaged pupils faced greater barriers when online tuition became “the norm” during lockdowns. For instance, many disadvantaged pupils do not have access to a dedicated computer or laptop, or a reliable internet connection. Often, they are working in households that are noisy and distracting. Parents and guardians may be less likely to provide support with home schooling, usually because of time constraints. Families may also have limited funds for additional resources.

In addition to these challenges, absenteeism during online tuition has been found to be far higher for disadvantaged pupils than during in-person sessions where teachers can better monitor attendance and engagement.

The attainment gap

The class of 2021 achieved some of the highest pass rates and top grades of any year. However, evidence suggests that the gap in attainment between disadvantaged students and their peers widened.

For instance, in July 2021 the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) published interim findings on the gap in attainment caused by school closures during Covid-19 lockdowns.

The study found a large and concerning gap between the attainment of disadvantaged pupils and non-disadvantaged pupils in both primary and secondary education. Overall achievement in reading and maths remains significantly lower than before the pandemic and the gap between children from low and high-income households (the disadvantage gap) remains wide.

For both reading and maths this gap is estimated to be the equivalent of seven to eight months’ learning in year 1 and 2.

The first set of findings from this study was published in January 2021. The most recent study looks at attainment after the second period of partial school closures in 2021.

These suggest that some children (especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds) fell even further behind since the autumn term.

To address the gap, the EEF and Sutton Trust recommend that:

  • funding should be directed to extra-curricular activities to boost pupils’ wellbeing and life-skills

  • funding should also be directed to mental-health support

  • sustained activities are required in recovering missed learning

  • on-going access to resources such as laptops and internet access is essential.

Full analysis of the 2020 cohort’s progress and attainment this academic year will be carried out prior to the publication of a final report expected in December 2021.

Recovery Premium Funding

Pupil Premium allocations are being re-examined as part of the work to address the attainment gap. New funding is also available in the form of the Government’s £1 billion catch-up spending.

In 2021/22 schools will be in receipt of an additional “recovery premium” of £145 for each eligible pupil in mainstream education and £290 for each eligible pupil in a special unit. Allocations will use the same data as existing pupil premium and will apply to pupils who:

  • are eligible for free school meals (FSM)

  • have been eligible for free school meals at any point in the last 6 years

  • are looked after by local authorities (to be paid to local authorities)

  • are former “looked after” children.

The Government states that schools should spend the additional premium on evidence-based approaches to supporting pupils. This includes activities that:

  • support the quality of teaching, such as staff professional development

  • provide targeted academic support, such as tutoring

  • deal with non-academic barriers to success in school, such as attendance, behaviour and social and emotional support.

Like the pupil premium, schools can spend the recovery premium on a wider cohort of pupils where they think the need is greatest.

Schools will be expected to show how they are using the funding through their pupil premium strategy statement and through Ofsted inspections.

School-led tutoring

A significant portion of the Government’s £1 billion pandemic catch-up fund has been allocated towards the National Tutoring Programme. Through this schools can access funding based on the number of students on pupil premium for “school-led tutoring” — where schools can hire tutors directly or use existing members of staff.

This is the Government’s main delivery of recovery intervention for disadvantaged pupils across 2021/22:

  • 60% of pupils eligible for pupil premium will be targeted through this school-led tutoring route

  • The remaining 40% will be targeted through the Randstad tuition partners programme, which aims to reach "some 750,000 pupils".

The Department of Education will fund 75% of the costs for the school-led scheme.

Enhanced support staff roles

Support staff, including teaching assistants and higher-level teaching assistants, can play a key role in the delivery of both academic and enrichment activities for disadvantaged pupils. The roles of such staff in many areas has altered significantly during the pandemic as schools have adapted to changing requirements. In some cases, this has included increased levels of leadership and planning responsibilities when it comes to the activities and support they offer.

Some senior leaders have highlighted these changes and have called for a better use of their valuable skills and abilities, especially in relation to pupil premium recipients.

For disadvantaged pupils in particular, having support staff to lean on for their academic and social and emotional needs can provide vital additional support to cope with the pressures of the pandemic.

Mental health and wellbeing

Another aspect of the pandemic that may have had a particularly significant impact on disadvantaged pupils is in the area of mental health.

During the pandemic, some young people, such as children in care or those who are disadvantaged financially, have reported poorer mental health and wellbeing. Parents/carers from households with lower annual incomes have also reported that their children may have suffered higher levels of behavioural, emotional and attentional difficulties than those with higher annual income throughout the pandemic.

These effects are likely to result from a mixture of factors, including:

  • difficulties of learning outside of the classroom

  • stress related to interrupted examinations

  • bereavement, anxiety or loneliness.

Supporting the mental health and wellbeing of pupils is another area where teachers and support staff can play a key role.

Classroom interventions might include:

  • creating opportunities for student-led talking and listening

  • providing welcoming, safe and comfortable environments

  • devising systems to recognise acts of kindness

  • placing a greater emphasis on socialising, perhaps by including additional breaks in the school timetable

  • implementing regular whole-class activities.

The charity Young Minds has made the following recommendations:

  • make wellbeing a priority in school catch-up planning

  • take a cautious approach to measures that could introduce additional pressure to some young people — such as extending the school day

  • make sure that all young people know where and how to find support now

  • ensure that there are smooth pathways between services that provide mental health support.

Many school leaders have acknowledged the importance of helping to cultivate positive mental wellbeing and emotional resilience during the pandemic. In some cases, helping provide a sense of stability for young people has been considered of greater value than diving back in with academic activities.

Next steps for leaders

The pandemic has left a growing inequality problem within the education system that requires urgent intervention. Every effort should be put into schemes that address the academic and support needs of disadvantaged pupils. This is challenging at a time when, in the absence of more comparable data, school leaders are still in search of evidence of what works.

In addition, the danger of further pandemic disruption is still very real and work must be done to prevent disadvantaged pupils falling even further behind.

Schools should apply a flexible approach over the coming weeks and months as the probability of needing a “blended” approach of online and face-to-face learning is still high. This might include more technology-focused training for teachers as they explore how to better utilise digital platforms and minimalize the absenteeism experienced with disadvantaged students and online learning.