Girls’ reading and maths harder hit by Covid

Education Policy Institute and Renaissance report also reveals the ongoing regional divide in outcomes following pandemic
18th March 2024, 12:01am


Girls’ reading and maths harder hit by Covid
Girls’ reading and maths harder hit by Covid

Girls’ reading and maths results were more negatively impacted by the pandemic than their male peers, new analysis has shown.

Although girls still outperform boys in reading, the report from the Education Policy Institute (EPI) and Renaissance has revealed that the pandemic appears to have had a bigger effect on girls’ outcomes than on their male peers.

The report also provides further evidence about how disruption to learning during Covid restrictions had an uneven impact in different regions, with pupils more than four months behind in primary reading attainment in Yorkshire and the Humber compared with their peers in London.

And it reveals the extent to which the attainment of poorer pupils and those with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) was more affected than their peers.

The report follows signs in last year’s Sats results that more support is needed to help primary pupils to catch up, ​​​​​​with reading and writing continuing to fall behind pre-pandemic levels.

Jon Andrews, report author, and head of analysis and director for school system and performance at the EPI, said the report’s findings - revealing how the attainment effects of the pandemic “continue to play out across a wide range of pupil characteristics and in different parts of the country” - will be “key to effectively targeting interventions and raising attainment for all children”.

“What’s particularly striking in this latest analysis is that girls’ attainment appears to have been hit harder by the pandemic than it has for boys, with gaps in reading closing and boys pulling further ahead in primary maths.

“With significant regional variation in pupil outcomes persisting, and pupils in London pulling further ahead of those in other areas, the government should evaluate the impact of the opportunity area programme and use this to inform policy development on place-based approaches to tackling social mobility, including the future direction of the education investment area programme.”

The analysis was drawn from more than six million Renaissance Star Reading and Maths assessments taken by pupils across school years 3 to 9 last year (2022-23).

Results have been broken down by gender, SEND, ethnicity, regions, disadvantage and English as an additional language.

Widening attainment gap between boys and girls

Outcomes for girls have fallen in secondary reading while outcomes for boys are largely the same, meaning the attainment gap has narrowed by 1.2 months to 4.4 months, the research showed.

However, in primary reading, outcomes for girls were largely the same as they had been prior to the pandemic, but there had been an improvement in boys’ attainment

This led to a narrowing of the attainment gap between boys and girls by 1.0 months, meaning that girls’ lead over boys has narrowed to 3.1 months.

In both primary and secondary maths, results have fallen for both boys and girls, but in primary maths, girls have fallen further, widening the gap by 2.0 months to 2.9 months in favour of boys.

The report comes after Labour announced plans to upskill primary teachers to teach “real world” maths in primary, including financial literacy.

The research also showed that disadvantaged students are further behind in primary maths than their more advantaged peers, with the disadvantage gap having widened from 6.9 to 10.9 months.

It also widened for secondary reading between poorer students and their peers, from 18.8 to 21.2 months, the report showed.

Attainment gap for SEND pupils remains ‘substantial’

Meanwhile, the researchers said that the attainment gaps between pupils with SEND and their peers in both subject and phase have narrowed slightly since the pandemic, but remain significant.

In primary reading, the gap between pupils with SEND and their peers narrowed by 1.0 months, to 19.4 months, the report said.

Meanwhile, the gap between pupils with an educational health and care plan and their peers narrowed by 0.2 months to 26.6 months.

Primary reading improved among all ethnic groups

Among primary-age pupils, all ethnic groups have seen improvements since the start of the pandemic in reading, the research found.

Black primary-aged pupils closed the gap with white pupils in primary reading and are now slightly ahead, according to the report.

However, while most ethnicities saw their reading outcomes improve, secondary reading outcomes for both white and Chinese heritage students have fallen since before the pandemic.

Yorkshire and Humber pupils behind

Substantial gaps remain between different areas of the country in reading outcomes, the report has shown.

Yorkshire and Humber was the lowest-performing region, with pupils 4.3 months behind those in London in primary reading, according to the report.

At the other end of the scale, pupils in London saw the biggest improvement, with reading outcomes up by an equivalent of 1.4 months in primary reading compared to those recorded before the pandemic.

Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said the report shows the pandemic impact is still being felt “despite the best efforts of teachers and school leaders” and called for more research into why “there appears to have been a bigger effect on girls than on boys”.

He added that the “particularly concerning findings over pupils with SEND and regional disparities” underline the urgent need to tackle the crisis in the special educational needs system” and for more funding for education.

“This is something that the chancellor has failed to address in either the last autumn statement or spring budget, compounding the government’s failure to put enough money into education recovery following the pandemic,” he said.

Paul Whiteman, general secretary of school leaders’ union the NAHT, said the pandemic had “undoubtedly disrupted” learning as many pupils missed “months of in-person lessons and lost their routine”, and that “inequalities have also been made worse by the cost-of-living crisis”.

He added that “teachers and leaders are continuing to pull out all the stops to support children to catch up” and welcomed the small closing of the gap for pupils with SEND, but said it was “concerning to see the impact of the pandemic on girls’ attainment”.

Mr Whiteman said that “schools urgently need more support” and warned that the lack of more money for schools in the recent budget, and the removal of tuition subsidies, meant the “financial pressures on schools are now so great, many schools have had to withdraw this [catch-up] offer to children”.

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