Return to school must come soon – with additional support for poorer pupils a priority

19 Feb 2021 10:32 AM

The emerging consensus to prioritise school reopenings is welcome. But how the return to school is managed is just as important as when. An optional return risks widening the gaps between disadvantaged students and their better-off peers. And even if the return to school is compulsory and soon, we will still need substantial additional support for poorer pupils.

That is the conclusion of new research from IFS based on data collected in England during last spring and summer. These lessons need to be taken into account when the plan for school reopenings is announced on Monday.

The research, funded by the Nuffield Foundation, shows that:

This reinforces the case for a full return to school to be at the very top of the priority list.

This suggests that there is a real risk that a voluntary return to school in March will further widen the gaps that the pandemic has already exacerbated.

Substantial targeted support will be needed to help disadvantaged pupils catch up, even after all children are back in the classroom.

Other findings include:

Adam Salisbury, a Research Economist at IFS, said:

“Despite schools’ and policymakers’ efforts to improve home learning during the first lockdown, pupils who remained at home were spending less time learning in June and July than they had been at the start of the pandemic. These falls were particularly big among secondary school pupils. The lack of ‘settling in’ to home learning means that, for students who were out of school over the whole period from March to September, learning loss per week likely got worse rather than better.”

Christine Farquharson, a Senior Research Economist at IFS, said:

“In light of the enormous costs that school closures have for children’s learning, the consensus on prioritising getting pupils back to school as soon as public health allows is welcome. But decisions about how schools reopen are perhaps even tougher than decisions about when. Prioritising certain year groups widens the gaps between children of different ages. A voluntary return to school from 8 March risks widening inequalities further if the poorest children stay home while their better-off peers choose to return to the classroom. We are going to need a big programme of support for pupils to undo some of the damage the pandemic has caused.”

Josh Hillman, Director of Education at the Nuffield Foundation, said:

“The fact that children from poorer families were less likely to return to school at the earliest opportunity last year, and in many cases were less able to engage with remote schooling, reinforces the need for sustained and targeted support for those pupils when they do return. Realistically, many parents will delay sending their children back to school whatever the policy is on prioritising particular groups for a return to the classroom, and that will increase the learning gap in the summer term and into the next school year.” 

Inequalities in responses to school closures over the course of the first COVID-19 lockdown