Pandemic's debilitating effect on students in England laid bare

Research reveals a generation of young people struggling to catch up on lost learning

The enduring legacy of Covid lockdown measures on young people in England has been unearthed. AP
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Eighty per cent of students expected to take A Levels in England this school year say their academic progress has suffered as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, a study published on Thursday suggests.

Its startling results led Sutton Trust founder Sir Peter Lampl to urge the UK government to act now or risk "blighting" the prospects of an entire generation.

The joint Cosmo study is the largest to date into the effects of Covid-19 on young people’s life chances, sampling more than 13,000 young people across England who were in Year 11 (15 to 16-year-olds) in 2021.

It paints a bleak educational picture, uncovering a huge constituency of students who feel unable to catch up on the years of lost learning.

The National recently asked if a private UK education was still worth it in the face of steepling costs, and the study seems to indicate in the affirmative.

Almost half (46 per cent) of state school pupils said they had not been able to catch up with learning, a significantly higher proportion than those at independent schools (27 per cent).

Additionally, state school pupils were more than twice as likely to say they felt they had fallen behind their classmates than independent school pupils (37 per cent vs 15 per cent),

UK catch-up funding laggards

As a result of substantial inequalities between schools in remote learning during lockdowns, the study examined opportunities for catch-up learning.

Despite extra tutoring being a core element of the government’s catch-up strategy, researchers said that support offered for catch-up across all school years in England was three times lower per person than funding provided for the US rescue plan for schools when adjusted for population size ― £4.9 billion ($5.4bn) compared with £15.5bn.

Of those surveyed, a large majority had not accessed extra tutoring with the most available option ― extra online classes ― offered to just half of the study’s participants and taken up by less than a third.

Independent school students were more likely to have been offered this than those at comprehensive schools (52 per cent vs 41 per cent), and were more likely to have taken part in additional online classes.

But when extra tutoring was offered to those at comprehensives, they were more likely to take this up than their independent school counterparts.

Better-off families were also more likely to pay for private tutoring when schools re-opened in 2021, with 19 per cent of parents with a child in the least deprived fifth of state comprehensive schools doing so, compared with 4 per cent from the most deprived.

Revising future plans

The findings also showed the pandemic has had a major effect on young people’s future plans.

Of those who had previously made plans, 64 per cent said they had changed their educational plans because of the pandemic, and 60 per cent had changed their future career plans.

Girls, young people from disadvantaged family backgrounds, and those attending state comprehensive schools were more likely than their counterparts to have changed their plans. Young people who had long Covid or ill health, who were asked to shield or who experienced economic hardships were also much more likely to have done so.

The 'blighted' generation

“These findings show that far more needs to be done for young people," Mr Lampl said.

"While all young people have been affected by the pandemic, there is clear evidence that students from less well-off households were affected most. Funding provided so far for catch-up has been a drop in the ocean. It is less than a third of what is required.

"The government’s education recovery plan must be much more ambitious, or we will blight the life chances of a whole generation.”

The study was led jointly by the UCL Centre for Education Policy and Equalising Opportunities, the UCL Centre for Longitudinal Studies and the Sutton Trust.

Updated: October 12, 2022, 11:01 PM