Covid: Year 6 pupils now lag 4 months behind in SPaG

Secondary schools may need to focus on 'technical' skills in punctuation and geometry with their Year 7 cohorts

Catherine Lough

Class Working On Engaging Activities & Revision Lessons Ahead Of The Year 6 Sats

Year 6 pupils are the age group furthest behind when it comes to spelling and grammar, a new study on learning loss during the Covid pandemic has warned.

The paper analysed results from more than 250,000 primary school tests from more than 1,000 schools taken in summer 2021 and compared these with results from the last uninterrupted summer term in 2019 before the Covid crisis.

It has found that pupils in Year 6 who will be joining secondary school this September were furthest behind when it came to their written accuracy.

The study published today, also reveals that pupils eligible for the pupil premium are now an average of six months behind their peers in maths and GPS (grammar, punctuation and spelling).


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The study, carried out by RS Assessment from Hodder Education and SchoolDash found that an additional 13 per cent of Year 6 pupils would have failed their Sats if they had taken them this year, adding that "it is likely only reading would have had a similar number of pupils reaching the expected standard as prior years".

As a result of this, it says secondary schools may need to give extra support to ensure that their new intake of Year 7 children have "mastered these more technical aspects of English before progressing to the usual key stage 3 curriculum."

Timo Hannay, co-author of the report, said: "Generally speaking poorer and younger pupils did worse, but obviously year 6 is an exception to that. Taking Year 6 out of the equation, younger pupils did worse [overall]."

He added that more technical subjects and topics had "fared worse than others" whereas reading had seen less of a decline.

"The things you would imagine need some specialist training to teach effectively [suffered more] – grammar versus reading is a good example," he said.

"Reading is something you can do straightforwardly at home but grammar requires someone to teach it effectively. 

"Things like punctuation and grammar do a bit worse than spelling and vocabulary, which might be more straightforward to do in a home environment.

"What this suggests on average is the incoming Year 7 cohort will be less able than previous cohorts and certainly pre-pandemic cohorts, and schools should be on the lookout for that. They might want to conduct their own baseline tests when kids come in."

Mr Hannay said that Year 1 pupils and reception classes had also seen more learning loss, and that this "indicates primary schools may need to do disproportionate amounts of work for their young children".

The paper says results in reading "indicate a relatively positive picture for children in Years 2 to 6" – by the end of the summer term in 2021, results were close to those in summer 2019.

Reading results showed that Year 1 pupils lagged furthest behind in progress in reading assessment tests - they could be as much as 3 months behind previous cohorts, whereas most older year groups were about a month behind.

The reading attainment gap for disadvantaged pupils in Year 1 has also grown "significantly", the study finds.

And the gap in GPS attainment between disadvantaged pupils and their peers grew from five months to six months across most years, while in Year 1, it could be as large as seven months.

But pupils in Year 6 were broadly "on track" with their reading, while the percentage who achieved a standardised score of 94 – and may have gone on to achieve the expected standard in their Sats – was stable across the 2019 and 2021 cohorts. 

The report also found that:

  • Falls in attainment for spelling, punctuation and grammar tended to be larger in schools with a higher proportion of children eligible for free school meals (FSM).
  • Greater falls in attainment for grammar, punctuation and spelling were also seen in the North.
  • Key stage two pupils had improved in their maths performance since the spring term.
  • In Year 6, middle ability pupils seemed to have fallen furthest behind in maths, whereas the fall in attainment for grammar, punctuation and spelling was more evenly distributed across the ability range.
  • The disadvantage gap in maths grew to 7 months for Year 6 pupils.
  • More Year 6 pupils were behind in maths than in 2019, and around 5 per cent more pupils would have failed maths Sats papers had they taken them.
  • The highest drops were seen in geometry scores.
  • Schools in the Midlands showed much larger average declines in maths. Schools in the North saw the greatest declines in Years 2 and 6.

Katie Blainey, publishing director at RS Assessment from Hodder Education, said:  “This year has posed many challenges to schools, including an extended national lockdown in the spring term, followed by high absence rates, with hundreds of thousands of pupils absent from school at any one time, even after schools reopened.

"Despite this, teachers and staff have shown remarkable resilience and adaptability, and they have ensured children have made significant progress in their learning. 

“It is encouraging to see how quickly progress has been made in areas like reading, and we hope that this research will help educators to identify the areas where additional focus and catch-up investment are needed.”

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author bio

Catherine Lough

Catherine Lough is a reporter at Tes.

Find me on Twitter @CathImogenLough

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