School closures, the attainment gap, and what it means for you

Last November, Ofsted published its report about the impact of the Covid crisis on learning, highlighting the detrimental consequences of school closures and distance learning on student learning. With learning environments consisting of dining room tables, laptops on beds, and zoom calls, it came as no surprise that students had lost key skills associated with reading comprehension and writing proficiency. One study that surveyed 11,000 students also found that only 34% of students felt motivated to learn remotely.

Even though teachers report working 60-65% more hours to mitigate these negative effects and keep up with the demands of distance learning, a brand new report by the Education Endowment Foundation suggests that the negative impact of school closures may be far worse than what we initially thought.

Here’s what the findings mean for you, and what you could do to help students close this worrying attainment gap.

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What the research says 

This research studied over 5,900 year 2 students in 168 schools across England and assessed their performance in tests taken in Autumn 2020. The findings, which have just been published, aimed to answer two questions:

  • Has children’s reading and maths performance been affected by school closures in 2020? And how much has it been affected?
  • Has the disadvantage gap widened? In other words, has there been a worse impact on school performance from Covid-19 on children from less advantaged families?

Unfortunately, the answer to both of these questions is yes. 

The tests showed that Year 2 pupils were roughly two months behind compared to a cohort of students tested in 2017, for both reading and maths ability. Furthermore, children from less advantaged families have been worse affected. The researchers found that children eligible for free school meals are now around 7 months behind their peers who are not eligible for free school meals. For children aged 6-7 years old, this is proportionally enormous. The disadvantage gap has widened, and to a dramatic extent. Finally, it appeared that some children had even forgotten how to engage with the tests, shown by some particularly low scores. 

It’s worth noting that these results, already showing a sizable impact, are only measuring the effect of the first lockdown in March. With the impact of the November lockdown and the current lockdown yet to be discovered, the researchers fear the worst is yet to come. 

So now that we’re beginning to see the impact, what can we do? Let’s take a look at some of the practical implications of this research to find out what we can do moving forward and how we can help support students. 


6 ways to support student learning during the Covid crisis

Maintain high expectations

Research has highlighted the power of having high expectations on student achievement. This is due to the Pygmalion Effect, which is when people raise their achievement to meet someone else’s high expectations and standards.

Yes, it’s important that teachers are flexible in expectations, as learning through these uncertain times is no easy task. However, it is still important to have a conversation with your students about what you expect from them and not be overly lenient. On the opposite end of the spectrum to the Pygmalion Effect is the Golem Effect which is when having low expectations of your students can hinder their academic performance. 

Change it up

Learning from home can be challenging. Not only can it be difficult for students to maintain attention whilst staring at a screen all day surrounded with their things, but it can also be difficult for teachers to find effective strategies for boosting student engagement and motivation. On the other hand, some teachers may be using certain methods unnecessarily.

For example, one way to keep students engaged is to gamify activities as it not only highlights how learning can still be fun but can boost motivation to learn as well. However, whilst research suggests that using games when learning the vocabulary of a foreign language is extremely beneficial, there has been less research on the impact of games on students’ academic achievement in other areas. 

Regularly check in with students

It’s important that you take some time out of the week to check in with students to see how they’re doing. It’s important that students feel supported, especially those from low-income or vulnerable households who have been hit the hardest in terms of their academic development. 

If you feel a student is struggling to keep up with their peers, perhaps consider providing them with additional help and resources to guide their learning. It may also be good to chat with your students about what they’re struggling with so you can come up with the appropriate solutions. Unfortunately, learning is not a one size fits all task and some students may not be able to engage with lesson content the same as their peers.   

Quality over quantity

Teachers have reported concerns that, in an attempt to make up for learning losses, the government is taking a ‘cram it all back in’ approach. However, this only leads to skimming over topics and leaving students who are already out of sync with the learning routine utterly confused and overwhelmed. 

So instead of speeding up, really it’s time to slow down. Focus on making sure students are up to scratch with what’s been covered so far, and work on consolidating this knowledge before trying to rush on through the curriculum. Take it one step at a time, and teach in small steps. As the saying goes, slow and steady wins the race. This should also help to bridge the gap between children who coped well with remote learning, and disadvantaged students who may have fallen more behind during this time, allowing them to catch up. 

Get parents involved

Research shows that parents who are actively involved in their child’s learning can help improve their academic achievement in the long run. With schools closed, teachers can only support their students to a certain extent.

The four most effective ways parents or guardians can help improve their child’s academic achievement are:

  • Having high academic expectations 
  • Having clear homework rules
  • Regularly communicating with their child
  • Encouraging good reading habits 

Research has found that students’ reading comprehension has taken a major hit due to the global pandemic. For primary school children, the negative impact of not reading on future academic performance has been widely documented

Parents have an essential part in developing their child’s reading skills by fostering an environment where reading is encouraged and even rewarded. This can help offset the negative impact of the Covid-19 crisis on reading skills. In fact, one study showed that parents reading to their child between 4 and 5 years old, 6 to 7 days a week had the same effect on their cognitive development as being a year older. 

Prepare well

Since students are now showing signs of struggling with test-taking, it’s time to think about how we can help them overcome this. A key way to reduce test anxiety is by helping students to prepare well for tests. In one particular study, researchers found that when students felt underprepared (as they believed their peers had carried out more revision), they experienced higher levels of test anxiety and lower levels of performance. 

These effects are exacerbated in uncertain situations. In other words, taking tests through the Covid-19 crisis is probably going to cause higher-than-normal test anxiety for students. 

Teachers can play a role in helping students to prepare for any tests better by incorporating more informal testing opportunities such as weekly quizzes and monthly reviews. Applying learning in informal, unpressured conditions is one of the best ways for students to consolidate their learning, familiarise themselves with testing conditions, and feel more prepared when a test comes along. 


Time to move on? 

Excessive testing from a young age can be overwhelming for students at the best of times, but particularly in light of the current situation. Some teachers are suggesting that this is a great opportunity to move away from all this structured testing and pressure that we subject students to.

Given that many exams have now been cancelled and that young students are showing signs of having forgotten how to even take a test, perhaps this is a good idea. With this, we might move towards adopting more informal, friendly and less pressured testing, which is all the better for helping students remember what they’ve learnt. 



While these findings are worrying and we can only speculate about how their effects are felt nearly a year on, there is hope. Knowing what we’re up against can help us come up with a plan and put adequate strategies in place.

For more tips on helping students overcome the difficulties of distance learning, check out our blogs on the importance of maintaining friendships whilst in lockdown and why adaptability may be the skill needed to survive 2021.

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