The COVID-19 pandemic has been tough on everyone, but school-age children have faced their own unique set of challenges. As well as missing out on opportunities to make friends and socialise, their education has also been significantly disrupted by school closures, and the additional challenges that virtual teaching brings.
Last year, the 2021 Juniper National Dataset Report highlighted the depth of the impact that COVID-19 had had on primary education. Twelve months later, the 2022 report explores the continuing effects as high levels of infection led to ongoing disruption for students for a second year.
The report analyses data from more than 6000 schools and over 500,000 primary pupils all over the UK, with the last set of data being collected at the end of the autumn 2021 term. As well as comparing it to the previous year’s data, we’ve also compared the figures to those from two years ago, so that the current situation can be framed against pre-pandemic performance.
Four particular findings stand out from the results:
Attainment drops sharply
The overall attainment of primary school students has dropped markedly over the course of the pandemic. The overall figures for Years 3 to 6 show the proportion of students achieving the expected levels for their age falling from 78% to 70% for reading, and from 79% to 69% for maths, between 2019 and 2021.
Exploring the figures in the 2022 report, however, uncovers an important point: almost all of the decrease occurred in the first year of the pandemic. While attainment hasn’t fallen further in 2021, neither has there been any significant recovery (with the notable exception of Year 6), meaning that primary schools have plenty to do to get their pupils’ attainment back on track.
Younger pupils feel the strain
Among the different age groups in primary education, it’s the youngest that have suffered the most. A look at the attainment figures for Year 3 specifically highlights worrying drop-offs in children achieving expected performance between 2019 and 2021: from 79% to 58% in writing, from 82% to 68% in reading, and from 83% to 69% in maths.
If we consider that the current Year 3 cohort’s last normal year of education was when they were in Reception, then it is not surprising that their attainment has dropped the most. Without the opportunity to develop the attitudes and behaviours that underpin normal school life they are more likely to struggle until these are re-established.
The disadvantaged gap widens
It’s no surprise that the performance gap between disadvantaged and non-disadvantaged children has widened over the past two years. Looking again at age-related expectation data, the gap in attainment for years 3-6 has widened from 14% to 20% in maths, from 16% to 20% in writing and from 15% to 19% in reading. Long-term strategies to address this widening inequality will therefore be vital in the months and years ahead.
Mixed experiences for SEN pupils
SEN pupils need an extra level of support in order to achieve expected attainment. But the disruption to normal education means that, in many cases, it has been much harder for that support to reach them.
The report findings have uncovered a startling difference in the performance of Year 3 children with SEN in particular. Pre-pandemic, SEN children in Year 3 had relatively high rates of meeting age-related expectations, before a significant drop-off from Year 4 onwards.
However, the 2021 figures have seen Year 3 attainment rates fall sharply, to the point that they are now in line with Years 4, 5 and 6. Indeed, the gaps in attainment between Year 3 children with and without SEN have risen from 29% to 45% in reading, from 29% to 44% in writing, and from 28% to 42% in maths.
If there is one positive to take from the SEN results, however, it’s that the gaps have remained stable for Years 4, 5 and 6, and have actually reduced in the case of Year 6.
COVID-19 has deepened the divides of inequality in all areas of society, and these results underline that primary education is no exception to this. Pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds, and younger pupils with SEN, have fallen even further behind their peers, while the youngest pupils are feeling the effects of a chaotic start to their education.
As the UK begins to live with COVID-19, it is hoped that the rest of the 2021/22 school year, and indeed 2022/23, will give these pupils a sense of normality. Schools are already doing extraordinary things to support children and families, and a return to regular teaching will give schools further opportunity to put long-term strategies in place to help those pupils who need it most.
To see where your school’s attainment figures compare with national trends, try our free online analysis tool.