The poorest pupils in the UK are likely to have missed the most learning time as a result of the pandemic, according to a new report, prompting a call for more targeted cash for schools in disadvantaged areas.
The report from the Education Policy Institute (EPI) echoes findings from a recent Tes investigation that found that primary schools with the most disadvantaged pupils had only half the attendance rates of those serving the most affluent intakes during lockdown.
The EPI report, based on analysis of school attendance across the UK since the start of term, also found strong evidence of a link between pupil disadvantage and school attendance levels.
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In Scotland, attendance rates in October were lowest among the 20 per cent most deprived pupils (89 per cent school attendance) and highest among the 20 per cent least deprived (95 per cent school attendance).
"This is also highly unlikely to be a uniquely Scottish phenomenon, with evidence of similar problems emerging for England," the report says.
"Indeed, credit should be given to the Scottish government for publishing such detailed information about levels and differences in school attendance rates by area and pupil characteristics," it adds.
The report states that the finding has key implications for policy, and that where pupils miss out on learning time because of the pandemic, "it is crucial that local and national policymakers provide appropriate support. This is in terms of access to necessary digital equipment and remote learning materials, but also replacements for free school meals".
And the report says that the combination of continued pupil absences combined with variable levels of lost learning time during lockdown will make it "incredibly hard to implement a fair exam process anything like that in a normal year".
"Policymakers designing assessment process for 2021 will need to recognise and account for the huge variations in lost learning time, and the continuing unpredictability of lost learning time and its actual impact on pupils," it adds.
The report also found that school attendance was higher in Scotland and Northern Ireland than for England and Wales at the beginning of term, which it suggests could have been because Scottish and Northern Irish schools had more time to prepare for reopening, or because national infection rates were lower when they reopened.
In all four countries, attendance was higher in primary schools than secondary schools, reflecting higher infection rates among older pupils.
The report also found significant variations in attendance across regions of England. Attendance at secondary school fell to as low as 61 per cent in Knowsley, while other areas with high infection rates also reported low levels of secondary school attendance in October, such as Liverpool (67 per cent) and Rochdale (70 per cent).
However, there were areas with lower virus rates that have low secondary school attendance rates, including Calderdale (64 per cent), Kingston upon Thames (68 per cent) and Bracknell Forest (72 per cent).
"The DfE should publish more data on local school attendance rates and do so on a regular basis, to allow for scrutiny of the factors affecting school attendance across the country," the report says.
Luke Sibieta, author and research fellow at the Education Policy Institute (EPI), said: “This research shows that so far in the autumn term, Scotland has been the most successful with getting pupils back into the classroom, with far higher school attendance rates than England and Wales over the last two months.
“Before October half term, more than nine out of every 10 pupils in Scotland still attended school. While some of this reflects lower infection rates, even in those areas that had similar rates of infection to other parts of the UK, Scotland still managed to achieve higher school attendance rates.
“While school attendance figures vary considerably, emerging evidence suggests that it is the most disadvantaged and vulnerable pupils across the UK who are missing the most formal schooling following the reopening of schools. Other UK governments should urgently follow Scotland’s lead and publish attendance rates by local authority and for the poorest pupils, so that we can track attendance rates into the winter and identify those pupils in need of extra support.”
David Laws, executive chairman of EPI, said: “The most disadvantaged children in the UK are facing a double blow to their education, after having lost the most learning time during the lockdown period in the spring and now during the autumn term of the new school year.”
“Government support for these pupils currently falls short of what is required. In England, the £650 million to help pupils catch up with lost learning time allocates the same amount of funding to a pupil in an affluent area as it does to a pupil in a poorer area. Funding also currently fails to take into consideration the rate of infection in an area and the level of disruption faced by schools.
“It is unclear why the government has not directed a greater proportion of funding to those pupils most in need of support. There is a compelling case for a more targeted approach to support poorer pupils who are disproportionately missing out on learning time, in order to prevent a significant widening of the attainment gap”.
Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said: “This report should ring alarm bells in government about the widely differing impact of Covid disruption on pupils because many of them will be taking exams next year.
"There is no way that it can be business as normal if a third of pupils were unable to attend school in some areas of the country, while in other areas attendance is over 90 per cent. Of particular concern, is the evidence that the most deprived areas were more likely to have seen lower pupil attendance levels.
“When pupils have to self-isolate, schools are working incredibly hard to provide them with remote learning, but it cannot be a substitute for direct classroom teaching, particularly for young people who struggle the most with their studies, and for disadvantaged pupils who do not have access to a dedicated laptop or sufficient internet connectivity. And all of this is on top of the impact of the national lockdown on these students.
“The plans for GCSEs and A levels in 2021 that have been announced so far by the government in Westminster do not go anywhere near far enough in tackling this issue. Changes to the content of the exams amount to no more than tinkering at the edges, while delaying the start of the exams is small beer compared to the level of disruption experienced by students, and fails to take account of the fact that students have been impacted to such varying extents.
“If the government wants to save next year’s exams series, and stop it falling into complete disarray, it has to stop shilly-shallying and get a grip of this matter. Students have to be given more choice in exam papers over the topics on which they can answer questions to account for varying levels of lost learning time, robust contingency plans must be put in place for those students who are unable to take exams or whose preparation is very significantly disrupted, and there has to be an allowance made in setting grade boundaries to recognise the circumstances.”
Avis Gilmore, deputy general secretary of the NEU teaching union, said: “It is clear from this latest analysis that Gavin Williamson has much to do if he is to make good on his promise to support every child through lockdown and beyond, as well as vulnerable pupils and those with SEND.
“The EPI’s analysis shows, unsurprisingly, that higher-income families are better positioned to make home learning work. The government was keen to appear as heroes of disadvantaged pupils during the summer, but the evidence to the contrary has been mounting.
"Setting aside the disgraceful decision not to proceed with free school meals during autumn term, we also saw last week the rationing of laptops for those who need them while at the same time imposing a legal duty on schools to provide remote learning. This doubles the difficulties faced by disadvantaged children and young people when trying to access learning."