According to new research on how the pandemic has affected the achievement gap, disadvantaged seven- and eight-year-old students were nine months behind their peers in reading and eight months behind in math.
The gap has widened since before the pandemic and has remained at a similar level since the spring of 2021, according to a study by the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) and the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER).
Their research followed 6,000 students who were in reception and first grade – aged four to six – in March 2020 through the spring term of 2022.
On average, they found that students who were in third grade in the spring of this year caught up in both reading and math compared to students before the pandemic.
Second-graders – aged six and seven – have largely caught up in math, but remain around three months behind in reading, the study found.
But for the disadvantaged, the picture is bleaker.
Socio-economically disadvantaged students in second grade in the spring of this year were around six months behind in reading and around five months behind in math, compared to their more advantaged peers.
The gap was even wider for third graders, with about nine months of progress in reading and about eight months in math, the researchers said.
The findings prompted the study’s authors to call for funding for the pupil premium – which targets the poorest pupils – to be protected.
The EEF urged the government to ensure that as more pupils become eligible for such funding, the amount paid per pupil is protected and, ideally, increases in real terms.
The researchers said they also found an increase in the proportion of very low achievers, especially in reading.
They said that in a typical second-grade class, made up of six- and seven-year-olds, there are now three very low-performing students in reading, compared to one before the pandemic.
Professor Becky Francis, chief executive of the EEF, said: “The findings add to a heavy body of evidence telling us that socio-economic inequalities in education – already entrenched before the pandemic – have increased.
“Schools do – and have done – a lot to mitigate this, but it would be naive of us not to recognize that factors outside of school – such as deepening poverty – also play a significant role in the widening achievement gap.
“Addressing inequalities in education and the factors that underpin them is the greatest challenge facing our education system. But it must be a top priority for this government. At the very least, pupil premium funding levels should be protected, ideally increasing in real terms for each eligible pupil.
Dr Ben Styles, Head of Classroom Practice and Manpower at NFER, said: ‘The huge effort by teachers and school leaders seems to be leading to encouraging recovery in some of our youngest students, but the disadvantage achievement gap remains a real concern.
“Schools that already faced huge challenges are now faced with large numbers of very low performing students, especially in reading, who have suffered the most from the pandemic. It is essential that the national tutoring program is protected from government budget cuts and that funds are distributed in a way that directly supports disadvantaged students.”
Kevin Courtney, co-general secretary of the National Education Union, said schools need to get more funding to support students if the achievement gap is to be properly closed.
He said: “The EEF confirms what school staff have been saying with growing urgency since the start of the pandemic: the socio-economic achievement gap has not only widened, it shows no signs of narrowing.
“Schools are doing all they can to deal with the consequences of the pandemic, but education alone is not enough. The government continues to ignore the role of poverty in limiting children’s learning horizons.
“Schools serving the most disadvantaged students have suffered the worst funding cuts since 2015. The EEF provides further evidence that the crisis is deepening. The government must take substantial measures to remedy this. Children need warmth, safe housing and food.
“Schools need better funding to support their students’ learning, especially for those who need extra help. These are essential prerequisites for any serious and sustained attempt to close the achievement gap.
A spokesperson for the Department for Education said: ‘We know the pandemic has impacted children’s learning, which is why it is so important that we continue to roll out our school recovery programme. education, which is backed by nearly £5 billion.
“With over two million tutoring courses now launched, along with an additional £24m investment to boost children’s literacy skills, we remain committed to our ambition that 90% of children will drop out of primary school. with the expected level in reading, writing and mathematics by 2030.
“Alongside this, thanks to the Chancellor’s Autumn Statement, the schools base budget will be increased by £2billion in each of the next two years, meaning that school spending returns to at least the 2010 levels in real terms – the highest spending year in history. ”
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